Getting Downright Nosey

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На носу: Imminent, about to happen

I have a confession to make: I don't think I've given the human nose the consideration it deserves. I've just thought of it as the thing in the middle of your face that allows you to breathe and smell. Whether large or small, pertly turned up or aristocratically straight, it's just a no-frills part of the human anatomy. But this may be a language- and culture-based prejudice. Нос (nose) holds a much larger place in the Russian imagination.

Some of the dozens of nose-related Russian expressions are easy to understand or have English cognates. For example, задирать нос (literally, to lift one's nose) is similar to the English speaker's description of someone with his nose in the air -- that is, someone who thinks he's better than others.

In both English and Russian, the nose is what we grab onto in order to lead someone around. In English, this has the sense of controlling someone; in Russian, водить за нос (to lead by the nose) has the sense of deceiving someone. As one newspaper headline asked recently, Россия водит Европу за нос? (Is Russia pulling one over on Europe?)

If someone is blind to the obvious, you can say: Не видит, что творится у него под носом (He doesn't see what's going on under his own nose). If someone has limited vision or is very egotistical, you might say: Дальше собственного носа не видит (He doesn't see beyond his own nose).

If something is about to happen, it's right "on your nose" -- на носу. Весна на носу! (Spring is right around the corner!)

If you have an encounter of the very closest kind, you can say: Нос к носу (nose to nose). В метро мы столкнулись нос к носу (We ran right into each other in the subway).

When you are dejected, your nose hangs down. Он потерял работу, но не повесил нос (He lost his job, but he didn't let it get him down).

When you easily make accommodations, which can include making compromises in matters of principle, you hold your nose whichever way the wind blows -- держать нос по ветру. This expression was originally a sailor's term and referred to the nose of a ship. Смена начальства его не волнует. Он всегда держит нос по ветру (Changes in management don't bother him. He goes whichever way the wind blows).

When you are tired, you "peck with your nose" (клевать носом); that is, your head nods down like a hen pecking at grain. Мне не удалось внимательно посмотреть телесериал, потому что я сидел на диване и клевал носом (I couldn't concentrate on the television series because I kept nodding off as I sat on the couch).

When you are a busybody, you shove your nose into places where it doesn't belong. На работе он стал совать свой нос в чужие дела, и его уволили (He began to stick his nose into other people's business at work and got fired).

When you want someone to remember something, you tell him to cut a mark on his nose: Заруби себе на носу. Etymologists aren't quite sure of the origins of this phrase. It might have originally referred to a different kind of нос -- a board that was cut with marks as a tally of sales or work.

But there are other phrases in Russian and related Slavic languages in which body parts get notched as a memory device. In any case, today you use it when you want someone to remember a truth or rule: Заруби себе на носу: тут только один начальник (Remember this once and for all: There is just one boss here).

This kind of truth is as plain as the notch on your nose.

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