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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Suave Words to Trip Up Your Stuttering Tongue

So often, just a few well-chosen phrases make all the difference between a suave, erudite sophisticate and a stammering, stuttering fool when it comes to speaking a foreign language. The following column is made up of examples from a list I keep of phrases I wish I had known when I needed them.


For instance, if one has the phrase yestestvenny otbor (natural selection), as in Charles Darwin's theory of evolution, there are hundreds of great moments when you can whip this out -- if you have it on the tip of your tongue. If not, you find yourself trying desperately to explain who Darwin was and to sum up all of evolution in broken Russian while your polite listeners just nod and smile.


Or consider that old Jesuit chestnut, tsel' opravdyvayet sredstva (the ends justify the means). Memorize this and I guarantee you will have a chance to use it in a discussion of the elections over the next few weeks.


And when people ask you what you will do if the Communists return to power, you can glibly enter into a discussion of the merits of Leo Tolstoy's theory of neprotivleniye zlu, or "non-resistance to evil." Or, you can recall Shakespeare's words as crowds rush to Sheremetyevo: Krysy pokidayut tonushchi korabl (the rats are deserting the sinking ship). Ne dai bog (God forbid)!


Bland speech can also be spruced up with some references to Biblical themes and classical Greek culture. Who in Russia today is capable of razrubit' Gordiyev uzel (cutting the Gordian knot)? And does Russia really need an Aleksandr Makedonsky (Alexander the Great) anyway? Maybe instead we need someone capable of a Solomonovo resheniye (a decision worthy of Solomon).


Or what about the Troyansky kon (Trojan horse)? I heard this phrase a few months ago in Novosibirsk when a paranoid Russian journalist found out that I worked for USAID. Boites' danaitsev dary prinosyashchikh (Beware of Greeks bearing gifts), he reminded me.


Of course, there are many occasions when it is appropriate to recall the tridtsat' srebrenikov (30 pieces of silver) for which Judas is said to have betrayed Jesus. On the other hand, it is often necessary to point out that ne khlebom yedinym zhiv chelovek (Man does not live by bread alone). What we really need, according to the Roman tradition, are khleba i zrelishch (bread and circuses).


Just a few expressions of this type can go a long way toward establishing your reputation as a khodyachaya entsiklopediya (walking encyclopedia). But you should be careful how you use them. On the one hand, if your delivery is halting, you may completely undermine the effect you are seeking to create.


On the other hand, if you do not choose your audience properly you run the risk of metat' biser pered svin'yami (casting pearls before swine). And we wouldn't want that.