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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

THE WORD'S WORTH: Idioms That Are Scarier Than Kuzka's Mother




Once a certain moderate command of Russian has been mastered, it is only natural to try to move on and impress with more flowery language. In these instances the temptation is great to pepper our speech with a few of those colloquial phrases that roll off our own native tongues.


But as Nikita Khrushchev found out the hard way when he took off his shoe and beat on the table before the United Nations, there is just no good way to translate ?- ?†? ??™†¶*? ™?""™®_? ?†?". While the non-Russian speaking world heard this expression to be translated as "we will bury you" - four words that continued to echo throughout the Cold War - the Russian speakers heard it for what it was: "We will show you Kuzka's mother."


Kuzka, as Russian legend has it, was a peasant with a very fierce mother. And while her ornery reputation may precede her in the Russia, it just doesn't sound all that threatening when you are sitting among a bunch of UN diplomats.


Perhaps the Russian interpreter on duty understood this when he decided to translate Kuzka's mother into we will bury you. But just imagine how international relations could have changed had the Soviet leader chosen his words more carefully.


Fortunately for most of us, the consequences of our linguistic errors likely will not provoke global thermonuclear war. But that doesn't let us off the hook. When it comes to colloquial expressions, we must resign ourselves to memorization. As they used to drill into our heads in Russian class: ??????*_®* - ?†?" ??*_®?, or repetition is the mother of learning.


For example, in Russian you do not kill two birds with one stone, but two rabbits, as in ?°®?" §??? "†©-*? (without implying the means of assassination). And you do not generally keep as quiet as a mouse, but rather ?®?* ??§-, _®¶* ??†?- (quieter than water, lower than grass). Indeed, if the mice I occasionally find making a ruckus in my kitchen are any indication, the Russian version of this expression makes perfect sense.


When it comes to colloquialisms, Russians prefer natural elements to animals. Whereas a native English speaker crammed into the armpit of a fellow metro passenger may say there is no room to swing a cat, his fellow passengers might say ?°...?™? _*L§* ??†??" - or there's no place for an apple to fall.


However, not every Russian colloquialism is as subtle or soothing as some of the examples mentioned above. For example, a thorn in one's side seems remarkably tame alongside its Russian equivalent - ?????" ???*?*™ L??...† ? ™?L?-...®°?, or to stand across someone's throat. And this is nothing when you consider the Russian way to knock someone over with a feather is ?§†?®?" ™†™ ?°???? ?? L?...??*, or to strike someone on the head as if with the dull end of an ax.