When People Act Like Animals

Тихий как мышь: quiet as a mouse

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One of the universal traits of human beings is anthropomorphism -- assigning human characteristics and motivations to animals, natural phenomena and inanimate objects. This is a fancy way of describing the tendency to see your DVD player as a malevolent creature determined to thwart your attempts to record a late night movie, or believe that your cat knows exactly which newspaper article you are reading when she lies on it so you'll pet her and stop wasting time following the news.

Yes, yes, you say, but what has this to do with language? Actually, a lot. Over the millennia, Russians have observed animals and assigned characteristics to them, which have come down to us in устойчивые сравнения (standard comparisons). So if you want to describe hunger, stupidity, courage or just about any other human trait, you have to know what animal to use in comparison.

Sometimes Russian and English speakers see animals in the same way. Свинья (pig) is a dirty creature in an American barnyard or a Russian двор (yard). So when your bilingual child comes home covered with dirt and smelling to high heaven, you can say ты грязный как свинья or you're as dirty as a pig. Лиса (fox) is crafty regardless of whether it is skulking around a chicken coop in Tula or Tulsa: хитрый как лиса (as sly as a fox). And for some reason, owls are the symbol of wisdom in both cultures: мудрый как сова (as wise as an owl).

And when someone is silent, he is тихий как мышь (quiet as a mouse). Here, I beg to differ with collective folk wisdom. Mice may be silent when stalked by a sly fox, but as someone who has been woken up at night by mouse marathons in the walls -- pounding, squeaking, jumping, cheering and jeering -- I'd say шумный как мышь (as noisy as a mouse).

But Russian- and English-speaking observers of the animal kingdom part company with bears and wolves. In English, we have made wolves sexual predators with expressions like "wolfish grin" or "wolf whistle." For Russians, wolves are the epitome of hunger. When you walk in the door after a long day at work, you shout to your Russian significant other: Ужин готов? Я голодный как волк (Is dinner ready? I'm as hungry as a wolf). In English, you'd say: I'm as hungry as a bear.

But when Russians see bears, they note how awkward they are. As you watch your significant other bash around the kitchen, you say он неуклюжий как медведь (literally, as clumsy as a bear). In English, you'd say he was a clumsy as an ox.

When Russians want to describe anger, they say: он злой как собака (literally, he's as angry as a dog). English speakers call junkyard dogs mean, but when someone is furious, he is as angry as a hornet. For Russians, silence is epitomized by the fish: На собрании мой начальник меня не поддерживал. Он сидел и молчал как рыба (At the meeting, my boss didn't back me up. He sat and didn't utter a word). If someone is brave in Russian, he is храбрый как тигр (literally, as courageous as a tiger), but in English he is lion-hearted. Russians assign strength to bulls: Он сильный как бык и без труда переставит твой тяжеленный буфет (He's as strong as a bull and can move your incredibly heavy buffet without a problem). English speakers would say he was as strong as a horse. However, we all agree that horses can chow down: Моему сыну 15 лет, и он ест как лошадь (My son is 15 years old and eats like a horse).

And we agree that teenage boys will eat you out of house and home.

Michele A. Berdy is a Moscow-based translator and interpreter.