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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

THE WORD'S WORTH: What's Old, Insidious, Part of Long Winters?




I don't much like riddles in English, but I really dislike Russian riddles. In English, riddles are merely annoying, usually cutesy little things made up by schoolchildren that have no significance. "What has four wheelsand flies?" "A garbage truck." That is all there is to it.


Russian riddles, or zagadki are far more insidious. First, they are an ancient, integral part of Russian folk culture, a product of centuries of long winters with nothing to do but drink vodka and talk. The riddle in Russian is an art form deserving no less respect than, say, the limerick in English (which, incidentally, I like much more than the riddle).


Second, Russian riddles usually -- and this is the really bad part -- don't come in the form of a question. Most of the time when someone asks you a riddle, you don't even realize you have been asked anything until his anxious stare notifies you that he is waiting for a reply. Ne pryadet, ne tkyot, a lyudei odevaet (It doesn't spin, it doesn't weave, but it clothes people), someone might say and then wait for your answer. This is a typical Russian zagadka and, if you answered ovtsa (a sheep), you managed to otgadat' (solve) it.


Which brings us to our third point. Since zagadki are a folk art form, they tend to be about farm animals, forest creatures and weather phenomenon. I could hardly imagine a Russian riddle about, say, a garbage truck, until one child I know told me this one: Zemlyu ryt' ya pomogayu, vmesto tysyach lopat ya odin rabotat' rad (I help to dig the earth and am happy to do alone the work of a thousand shovels). The answer: eskavator (an excavator). Can garbage trucks be far behind?


As a rule, though, genuine zagadki don't stray far from the farm. Sidit ded, v shubu odet -- kto yego pazdevaet, tot slyozy prolivaet (There sits a man in a coat. Whoever takes the coat off will begin to cry). Answer: luk (an onion).


Or, odna noga i shapka, a golovy net (One leg and a cap, but no head). Of course, its a grib (a mushroom).


One more: na dvore goroi, a v izbe vodoi (in the yard like a hill and in the hut like water). Sneg (snow).


Generally, Russian children love riddles and I know more than a few adults who always have a few handy, so it is a good idea to get familiar with them.


After all, no less an authority than the great lexicographer Vladimir Dal has called the riddle tsvet narodnogo uma (the flower of the folk mind). And the writer Alexei Tolstoy described them as prazdnichnaya odezhda narodnoi dushi (the holiday clothes of the folk soul).


Maybe I should give them another chance.