Get the latest updates as we post them — right on your browser

. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Let's Not Mince Words: Bright Is Right

To Our Readers

The Moscow Times welcomes letters to the editor. Letters for publication should be signed and bear the signatory's address and telephone number.
Letters to the editor should be sent by fax to (7-495) 232-6529, by e-mail to, or by post. The Moscow Times reserves the right to edit letters.

Email the Opinion Page Editor

???????: a great/talented/smart/skilled person; also an exclamation of approval or praise

In Russian, smart is good -- and multi-faceted, too. You can be plain old, all-purpose ????? (smart, intelligent); the more down to earth ???????? (reasonable, rational, sensible); the quick-witted ??????????????? (resourceful, sharp, on the ball); or smart like Solomon -- ?????? (wise). You might also be ???????? (not stupid) -- one of those wonderful Russian double negatives that can be very high praise indeed.

You might also be ????????, which has the sense of being very knowledgeable or skilled. ?? -- ???????? ?????. ?? ????? ????? ???????????. (He's a knowledgeable lawyer. He knows the law inside out.)

Or you might be the more colloquial ?????????? (from the slang for head -- ?????), ?????????? (from the word for brain -- ????), ?????????? (from the word for head -- ??????) -- all of which mean brainy, resourceful and clever.

You might be smart in the sense of quick-witted: ???????. This means "quick on the uptake," of "fast on your feet." It can be positive: ?? ??????? ????????????? -- ??????? ? ?????????????. (He's a good administrator -- sharp as a tack and efficient.) But more often it seems to carry a tinge of disapproval, said of someone who is quick to grasp an idea or opportunity even if it means pushing someone else out of the way: ??? ????? ????????, ??????? ? ???????, ?? ??????? -- ??? ????? ????? ?????????? ?????. (She's really active, fast-moving and quick-witted -- but most importantly she's very clever at using people.)

Someone who catches on quickly can also be described with the phrase ?????? ?? ???? (literally "to catch on the fly"). ?? ????? ?? ???? ???, ??? ??????? ?????????. (He immediately grasps everything the professor says.)

You can also be ??????????????, which is very, very good. But it doesn't mean "intelligent." It means "a member of the intelligentsia" and, depending on the context, might be translated as cultured, well-mannered, thoughtful, morally upstanding -- or all of the above. It's something like "the best and the brightest." If anyone ever uses this adjective to describe you, write your Mom and Dad and tell them they done good.

Or you might be ?????/??????, especially if you are under the age of 10. When a five-year-old gets all the answers on a test right, parents cry: ?????? ???! (What a smart little girl you are!) This can also be used jocularly for 35-year-old female co-workers who have finished a task ahead of time: ?????? ?????! (Brilliant, guys!)

Curiously for English speakers, these monikers can be used in situations where intelligence doesn't seem to be an issue. For example, when your child eats all the porridge, you can also exclaim: ??????! In English we'd say: Well done! Good boy! But be careful: ????? (the masculine form) is often used ironically -- something like "Smarty Pants" -- so you need to watch your tone of voice, lest you pass on the wrong message.

The line between youth, intelligence and skill has become totally blurred in the ubiquitous word ???????. It seems to have originally been an affectionate diminutive for a ??????? ??????? (young man), which became more specific over the ages. When the stress is on the first syllable, it is an archaic and poetic term to describe a bold, daring fellow. Today we mostly hear it with the stress on the last syllable, used either to describe someone who is great in some way (smart, skilled, talented) or as a general exclamation of approval and praise. ???? ??????? ???????? ?????! ???????! (Our team won the cup! Good going!)

In Russian, as in English, you can have a good head on your shoulders: ?? ???????, ? ???? ?? ? ???? ?????? ?? ??????. (He's a hard worker with a good head on his shoulders.) This has always struck me as a silly expression -- where else would your head be?

Oh. Scratch that question.

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