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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

THE WORD'S WORTH: Horse(radish) Around With Russian Idioms




Everyone has up their sleeves at least one Russian expression they can whip out to impress their Russian friends. For me, this expression used to involve the word khren, or horseradish - an ironic choice for me, because I have never been too fond of the bitter root itself.


But khren yego znayet! was always one of those exclamations that used to delight my companions, provoking what I read to be surprise followed by a chorus of cackles.


Literally translated "horseradish knows it," the figurative translation is a lot closer - or so I thought - to "God only knows!" Need to know when the bus will come, whether or not the ruble will fall tomorrow or whether Yeltsin will fire his latest government in a few months? Khren yego znayet!


I always thought khren yego znayet was one of those quirky Russian expressions symbolizing a cultural respect for the wisdom of the horseradish plant. But, as it turns out, sometimes horseradish is more than just horseradish. In many cases, such as khren yego znayet, the innocent root serves as a euphemism for a root-like male body part. This would explain why my use of the expression always elicited such a startled reaction among my companions.


As with most Russian nouns, we also have the option of taking the horseradish and turning it into an adjective, as in khrenovy, meaning lousy, or rotten. This is a particularly beneficial word, applicable in a variety of uses. How was your vacation? Khrenovo! It rained the whole time. Or, how do you feel today? Khrenovo! I drank too much last night. Ni khrena sebe is another delightful exclamatory remark that may show off your command of the Russian language. Very much like nichego sebe, these expressions express incredulous wonder, as in "You don't say!"


These above uses of the word khren are, I have been assured, perfectly acceptable. But with an expression such as khren s toboi - to hell with you - you are skating on thin ice. Khren s toboi is rather rude. Not quite as rude, admittedly, as a similar expression that sends someone "to three letters," but I cannot write these three letters in this space, as this is a family paper.


Do not think that khren is the kind of word that inspires only the colloquial saying. It is, in fact, well-rooted in Russian literary expression as well. Kozma Prutkov, a pseudonym of a group of 19th-century Russian poets, made the horseradish immortal with his words: Tebe i gor'ky khren malina, a mne i blamanzhe polyn. (For you the bitter horseradish is as sweet as raspberries, while for me the sweet blancmange is not unlike the bitter wormwood.) The meaning does get lost somewhat in 20th-century translation, but this was Prutkov's jocular way of saying: tastes differ.