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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Get Smart

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??????? ???? ????? ?? ???: a really brainy person

Whenever I make a major life error, like doing a large translation without a contract and discovering -- surprise, surprise -- that I can't get paid, one of my friends always shakes her head and asks ?? ????? ?? ?? ?????????? (When on earth are you going to smarten up?) This is known as a rhetorical question. Or a question asked when the person knows the unsatisfactory reply ahead of time, which in my case is the equally sad: ?? ???? ????????? -- ???????. (By all indications -- never.)

But: ??????? ??????? ????????? (hope springs eternal, literally "hope dies last"), and I do try to smarten up. In Russian, this is ??????. You might also use the comparative form of the adjective ????? (smart), ?????: ?? ???? ????? ? ??? ?? ???????? ???? ??????. (He's gotten smarter and doesn't trust just anyone any more.)

This should not be confused with the lovely verb ????????, which means "to be overly clever" in some way and is often used in the negative as a command: ?? ???????. Russians associate this phrase with the servant Savelich in Alexander Pushkin's The Captain's Daughter, who is constantly doing things above his station and constantly being told by his master: ????? ??? ???? ??????? ? ?? ???????! (Do what you're told and stop trying to be clever.) In other cases, it can be a reprimand not to be a smart aleck. When a child says something inappropriate to Mom, Russian Mom says: ?? ???????! (Don't get smart with me!)

When you are trying for some intellectual self-improvement, you might use the phrase ????????? ??? (literally "to get some intelligence"). ??????? ??? ?????? ?????, ???????? ?? ? ????????? ??? ???? ?? ? ???? ???????. (I recommend that you buy this book, read it and learn something -- at least about this issue.)

When you have acquired a bit of intelligence, someone might say ?????? ????? (your head works, literally "cooks"). ?????? ? ???? -- ? ???? ?????? ?????, ?? ???? ??????? ?????. (Ask Vasya. He's got a good brain -- he'll have some good advice.)

When someone is very smart, you can call him ??????? ???????? ??? (literally "a person of great intelligence). Or you can also call him ??????? ???? ????? ?? ???. This expression comes from the old measure ????, which was the length of the space between the tips of your extended thumb and index finger. The idea was that if your forehead (???) were seven of these measures high, that great expanse would be filled with brains and you'd be very smart indeed.

Actually, your head would be about a meter high and you'd look like something out of a horror movie, but metaphorically speaking, you'd be a real egghead. ????? ??????????? ? ????, ?? ????? ???? ????????? ???? ????? ?? ???. (You don't have to be a rocket scientist to figure this out.)

There are lots of expressions in Russian that use the word ?? (intelligence, brain), which strikes me as a rather fluid concept in Russian -- or rather, the meaning of the word depends on context and idiom. For example, ???? ???? ???? (literally "to live by one's own mind") is said of someone who knows his own mind and is not swayed by fashion or others -- and not "to live by one's wits" as it might seem.

Sometimes ?? has the sense of sanity: ???? ? ??????? ??? means "to be in one's right mind," i.e., to be mentally competent. But sometimes it has the sense of shrewdness. ???? ???? ?? ??? means "to watch out for Number One," i.e., to act in one's interests at all times.

In other words: Sign a contract before doing the work. Duh.

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