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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

The Dog Daze

?????? ??????: to know something in and out

If I could choose what to come back as in my next life, I would like to come back as one of Moscow's pet dogs. There may be some cruel dog owners out there, but in my neighborhood you can't find a more pampered or coddled canine population on the planet. Imagine how nice it would be to be hand-fed imported tidbits, dressed in boots and a hand-knit sweater, carried out to the park and then praised to the skies for heeding nature's call. A dog's life indeed!

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Linguistically, however, the Russian dog's life is a different matter. Or rather, dog expressions in Russian aren't always so warm and fuzzy.

First of all, ?????? (dog) can be used to describe some very unsavory people. When a nasty driver nearly clips your bumper, you can snarl: ??????! (You rat!) Or you can use ?????? (or ????????? ??? -- devoted dog) to describe an obsequious flunky. ?? ??????? ???, ??? ????? ??????????. ?? ?? ?? ??????. (He'll do whatever the boss says. He's her lap dog.)

When you come across the adjective ??????? used figuratively, the image is usually intensely miserable: ??????? ????? (bitter cold); ??????? ????? (a dog's life); ???? ??????? (utter nonsense). ?????? ??????? ?????? (a cur's death for a cur) is something you wouldn't wish on your worst enemy -- to die like a dog (and not be buried properly). ??????? ??????? (literally, dog's delight) may not be comprehensible to anyone under the age of 20; in Soviet times, it referred to cheap and low-quality lunch meat (???????).

If people are quarrelsome, you could use the verb ?????????? (to go at it tooth and nail) to describe their behavior. Or you could say of your bickering neighbors: ??? ????? ??? ????? ? ??????? (they fight like cats and dogs).

A different aspect of canine behavior is the basis of the expression ??? ????? ????????? (a great many, literally, "like a lot of uncut dogs"). The meaning becomes clear once you know that ????????? is a synonym for "not castrated," and the image is a pack of dogs around a bitch in heat. Today it seems to be used when the speaker doesn't think the great quantities of whatever is being discussed are desirable: ? ??? ? ?????? ????????????? ????????? ??? ????? ?????????. (In our city computer programmers have multiplied like rabbits.)

Then there are some mysterious canine expressions. ?????? ?????? (literally, to eat up a dog) means "to get the knack of something." ????????? ?????????? ?????? ????????. ? ?? ???? ??????? ?????? ????. (Translate the financial report? No problem. I've cut my teeth on lots of them.) The origins of the expression are not clear; my dictionary of idioms gives no less than eight possible explanations, including the distasteful theory that eating a dog was once a rite of passage for young men in the Slavic world.

Another odd expression is: ??? ??? ?????? ??????! (literally: Here's where the dog is buried!) This is apparently a calque from the German and involves a rather lengthy tale. Legend has it that a knight once buried a dog that saved his life and put up a monument. When tourists came looking for the monument, the locals would say: Here's where the dog is buried! Now it's what you exclaim when you finally discover the hidden truth of something: So that's what this is all about! But it sounds like a shaggy dog story to me.

You should be careful not to mix up your verbs in two similar expressions: ???????? ???? ????? and ?????? ???? ?????. The first means to set the dogs on someone; the second means to unfairly place all the blame on someone. ?? ???? ???? ????? ?? ?????? ??????????? ??????. (Don't blame it all on the poor journalists!)

Or on us poor columnists: We couldn't make this stuff up.

Michele A. Berdy is a Moscow-based translator and interpreter.