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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

No Need to Clam Up: A Fish Can Say It All

The cards and letters are rolling in. Yes, after last week's column about the animal attraction of the Russian language, readers are clamoring for more.


Interestingly, the highest number of respondents were Pisceans requesting expressions involving fish. So let's say you and your Russian friends are having a festive evening over herring and sturgeon. After a few bites of the seafood, Sasha declares "ryba lyubit plavat'." And you think to yourself, "Fish like to swim. Brilliant observation, pal. And birds gotta fly."


But Sasha isn't just being silly or attempting the opening lines of the song from "Showboat." He is signaling his attention to chase the fish with a little alcohol. So think of a toast as the vodka is being poured.


Remember when you were a kid and your brothers were volleying smarty-pants equivalents for "I need that like I need a hole in the head" -- you know, expressions like "I need that about as much as a screen hatch in a submarine." Actually, it's better if you don't remember, because Russian has a more picturesque way of expressing this idea: "I need this like a fish needs an umbrella." (Mne eto nuzhno kak rybe zontik). Sometimes a speaker will specify a pike (shchuka), instead of fish in general: Mne eto nuzhno kak shchuke zontik.


In English, people are said to look for greener pastures, which indicates a certain affinity with ruminants. Russians, by contrast, draw a parallel with fish looking for deeper waters: Ryba ishchet gde glubzhe, a chelovek gde luchshe.


Fish don't cry, except in Russian. Instead of squealing like a stuck pig, a person can be said to sob like a white sturgeon -- on (ona) revyot belugoi.


All this talk of fish is starting to make me feel cold and clammy. But if something were cold to the touch, fish might not come to a Russian's mind as fast as a canine: kholodnyi kak sobachyi nos (cold as a dog's nose).


Now think slithery. That evasive person who can slither out of any situation is skol'zky kak uzh, slippery as a snake. Note, however, that the uzh is not poisonous. By contrast, the venomous man is called a gad (reptile), and an evil woman is a gadyuka (viper, adder). Both can do you wrong, but at least they're considered clever.


The greater woe is to be the victim of a kozyol, literally a goat and figuratively a jerk, particularly one who is not too smart.


The Russian goat trades places with an English vegetable in the expression vsyo ravno chto ot kozla moloka, or "it's like getting milk from a he-goat" (blood from a turnip).


Next week: equal time for anteaters.





Robert Coalson is on vacation.