A Very Handy Word
- By Michele A. Berdy
- Oct. 24 2008 00:00
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Who wouldn't grease a palm to hear that?
In Russian, рука (hand) conveys a great deal. It is used in a number of expressions as a stand-in for competence. Местные работодатели охотно нанимают российских специалистов, поскольку те мастера на все руки (Local employers are eager to hire Russian specialists since they are Jacks of all trades -- literally, "masters for all hands"). Once, you could describe someone as мастер большой, средней или малой руки (excellent, average or poor craftsman; literally, "a craftsman of a big, medium or small hand"), but now you commonly only hear about the hand in the middle: Он писатель средней руки (He's an average writer).
To describe great skill, you can say someone has золотые руки (golden hands). Мы нашли плотника -- у него золотые руки. Он строит великолепно! (We found a top-notch carpenter -- he builds beautifully!) The opposite is руки-крюки (hook-hands), which you use to describe someone who is clumsy or makes a mess of a job. Длинные (or less commonly долгие) руки (long arms) are good or bad, depending on the century and context. In the old days, someone who had long arms was omnipotent, that is, they could reach everywhere and do everything. A man like this was Юрий Долгорукий (Yury Long Arms), the founder of Moscow. Today when you hear у него длинные руки (literally, "he has long arms"), it is more likely to mean that the person is a thief or greedy. This can also be described by another hand expression: Он нечист на руку, with the stress on "на" (He's light-fingered.)
Your hand might be лёгкая (light) or тяжёлая (heavy). In the old days, someone with a light hand was both lucky and brought good luck. If you knew someone like this, you'd ask them to lead your new cow into your yard to guarantee that she'd be healthy and produce a lot of milk. Someone with a heavy hand brought misfortune. These days you might hear С её лёгкой руки мы получили кредит (Thanks to her, we got a loan; literally "with her light hand"). Today, тяжёлая рука can be used to refer to someone who suffers and brings misfortune, but it is used more commonly to describe someone who packs a wallop. У её мужа тяжёлая рука (Her husband is a brawler).
These are very different concepts than their apparent English equivalents: light-handed (деликатный, еле заметный), heavy-handed (грубый) and heavy-hitter (влиятельный).
If you don't have a light hand, you might be someone's right hand: Он был правой рукой начальника (He was the boss's right-hand man). Or you can bang your hand -- набить руку. This expression means to get the knack for something. Сначала мне было тяжело, но я довольно быстро набила руку (At first I had a hard time, but I quickly got the hang of it). Or you can do something with a quick hand -- на скорую руку (quickly and rather carelessly). This expression is often used in the kitchen: Муж без предупреждения привёл домой своих сослуживцев, и мне пришлось на скорую руку готовить ужин (My husband brought home his coworkers without warning, so I had to rustle something up for dinner).
And if one of the guests snatches a bit of dinner that you are preparing, you can practice another hand expression: Я дала ему по рукам (I gave him a slap on the wrist).
Michele A. Berdy is a Moscow-based translator and interpreter.