Big? Cute? Intelligent? Check Baby's Passport

"Oi kakoi bolshoi!' (What a big baby!) people keep sighing when they meet the amazing fast-growing Benedict Ingram Anichkin with his unheard-of six teeth by the age of six months. I used to get quite cross, pointing out that since he is long but not fat, big is the wrong word.

But Russians couldn't understand why I preferred dliny to bolshoi and soon the truth came out: Big, in Russian, is a compliment as far as babies are concerned, especially boy babies who are meant to be krupny, well-built, and the word doesn't carry the overtones of "fat" which makes it a no-go compliment in English.

In California you have to be even more careful, according to a recently arrived friend and mother: Not only can you not say what a big baby, but also not what a sweet little baby (are you implying its low birthweight? the mother was a smoker? that there's something wrong with the baby?) Nor even, I guess, can you say what a lovely exactly average-sized baby. Remarking on a baby's size, however perfect, is completely incorrect, as is commenting on its color -- although it's hard to imagine in what circumstances one might be moved to coo "what a very black, or very white, baby."

Competition there now rests on the comparative attractions of baby's wardrobe rather than the physical attributes it may not be able to help.

This previously undiscovered minefield of national rules, however, presents a problem for the terrified non-parent who knows they're meant to say something positive about the screaming bundle being thrust into their arms for admiration.

So try to determine the nationality of what's inside the shawl, and of the parents if possible. American babies are "cute," and "active" is very permissible, even in California. "Clearly intelligent" will get European parents fiercely nodding their agreement -- so don't worry about feeling phoney when using it to describe a child still in newborn-sized Pampers.

When cooing over Russian offspring, comment positively on the size: Baby boys are bolshoi, krupny, silny and krepky -- "big," "well-built," "strong" and "sturdy." Girls are rumyanaya -- "rosy-cheeked," like "little dolls" kakaya kukolka! moving on to "good" when they're toddlers. Russians like their children good, as in neatly dressed and conformist, the ultimate compliment for a girl being mamina pomoshnitsa -- "mummy's little helper." (NB: never use this for a boy.)

In other words, my Benedict is more intelligent than big and if you tell me Vita's good I'll start seriously worrying about her capacity for individuality. But tell Sasha she's a little doll and he'll glow with pride.