The Little Word That Means So Much

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Так: thus, like this, so, then, for no reason, as it should be, OK

As you form your expat lexicon of handy-dandy Russian words, так should be near the top of the list. Так can be an adverb, particle or conjunction. It can presage a nasty comment, set the stage for a conclusion, indicate a gathering of thoughts, or assert that something is done. It can refer to something being done in a particular way, the right way or for no reason at all. It is delicious word to pronounce. You can stretch it out for emphasis, raise your tone at the end in threat, or clip it short, like the sound of the last nail tapped into a do-it-yourself project.

Too bad так is such a royal pain to categorize and define.

Luckily, some так usage is pretty easy. Так can mean "very much." Я так вам благодарна! (I'm so grateful to you!) Or it can be used as a conjunction in "if ... then" constructions: Если тебе не нужно это платье, так отдай его мне (If you don't need the dress, then give it to me). Sometimes it can be translated as "so": Так ты уже всё сделал! (So you've already done everything!)

Так can also mean "in this way, thus." Он припарковал машину так, что я не смогла открыть дверцу (He parked the car so that I couldn't open the door). Пиши так, как я сказал. (Write what I told you; literally, "Write in the way that I told you.")

The так notion of "in this particular way" sometimes expands to a grander notion of "the right way," and так/не так become a kind of shorthand for right and wrong. Так ли я написал? (Did I write it correctly?) Он очень красив, не так ли? (He's really handsome, isn't he? Literally, "isn't it so?") Прости, если что не так (Sorry if I did something wrong; literally, "if something isn't so.") Я так и думал (That's just what I thought).

Like the English "thus," так can be used to set up a logical conclusion or next step. This is familiar to anyone who has ever attended a conference. The speaker makes his torturous, tedious way through an hour of evidence, case studies and examples, takes a deep breath and says, Так, ... (Thus, ... ). Prepare for more tedium.

Just to keep us struggling would-be Russian speakers on our toes, так can also mean "for no reason" or "with no consequences." Зачем ты пришёл? Просто так (Why did you come here? For no reason). Твоя наглость так просто для тебя не пройдёт! (Your insolence won't go unpunished -- that is, "won't be without consequence.")

In other constructions, так can have the sense of "not so good" or "nothing important." Ты как? Да так (How are you? Not so great). Это я так -- между прочим. (It's not important -- I just mentioned it in passing).

I like the way так changes in meaning depending on context and tone of voice. For example, you're bustling around the kitchen before 20 guests arrive. You pause to gather your thoughts. You say (pensively): Так. Что еще надо сделать? (OK then, what else do I have to do?) Or you have just finished decorating the cake. You say (assertively, with satisfied nod of the head): Так. Торт готов (That's done. The cake is ready). Or you notice that your significant other is still downloading music on the family computer and has not cleaned the living room. You say (threateningly): Так! Сейчас же выключи компьютер и уберись в комнате! (Listen up! You better turn off that computer and clean up right this minute!)

Your significant other realizes that you mean business and reverts to military-speak: Так точно! (Yes, sir!)

And you say: Вот так! (So there!)

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