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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Tricky Double-Entendres

????: box, crate, TV, top-security enterprise

Learning a foreign language is an embarrassing process. Years ago, when I was still struggling with "real Russian," as opposed to the very correct literary Russian I'd been taught, I visited a married couple and tripped over the doorsill as I entered their apartment. Both of them cried out, ""???!" I mentally translated this as "Be quiet!" and spent the evening whispering (I thought there was a baby sleeping in the back), while my hosts plied me with hot tea with lemon and honey (they thought I had a sore throat.) Later, when I figured out that ???? can also mean "be careful," I felt like an utter fool.

Getting the hang of slang is a tricky process, although some slang meanings of nouns in Russian are not hard to decipher. Take ????? (fruit), a bilingual word for a nutcase. Or ???? -- a large cupboard or wardrobe that is a vivid description of a big guy or a bruiser. ???? (turnip) is a bit harder to envision in its slang meaning of a human head, although I've certainly known people with the IQ of a root vegetable. ????? (zebra) is a pedestrian crossing, so called because of its white stripes and, I believe, because most Moscow drivers regard pedestrians in the crosswalk in the same way big-game hunters regard live zebras on a safari.

Slightly more confusing is ??????????, literally the room "before the bath house," which has come to mean any kind of anteroom. If someone says, ?? ?????? ? ??????????? ? ????? ????????, it doesn't mean they were waiting for a meeting with their naked elected official while wrapped in towels and sipping beer, but rather that they waited in the deputy's reception area.

Even more confusing is ???? (box, crate). It can be used to mean a television: ??? ????? ????? ?????? ? ???? ????. (My husband sits in front of the idiot box and drinks beer.) But it doesn't mean a box or a television in this phrase: ??? ???? ??????? ? ????? (literally, "my father worked in a box.") Here, ???? means a secret or high-security enterprise, short for ???????? ???? (mail box).

But most linguistically dangerous are all the euphemisms and slang words for private body parts. When speaking with men, experience has taught me to pronounce with great caution anything that is longer than it is wide; mentioning everyday objects like ????? (hose) or ????? (banana) may cause unintended innuendo.

Another tricky word is ???? (eggs), what Spanish speakers call cojones, and what English speakers call balls. If you don't know this, you can get into some interesting conversations.

For example, an American friend related a puzzling experience in the metro to some Russian friends and me. She had been standing in a crowded car; in front of her sat a man holding 10 eggs wrapped in a paper cone (this was in the Soviet period, when there were no egg cartons.) He politely offered her his seat, but she politely replied: ???-???. --????? -- ???? ? ??? ????. (No, no, please sit. After all, you've got eggs.) The passengers giggled. He insisted, and to show her gratitude, my friend said, '?????, ? ????. ?? ????? ????????? ??? ????????? ???? ????! (Fine, I'll sit down. But at least allow me to hold your eggs!) The passengers were now rolling on the floor with laughter. My friend asked us: ??? ? ???? ????????? (What's so funny about that?), and then continued: ???-???? ???????? ????? ?????. ????????? -- ?? ??????? ??? ??????? ?????? ??????, ??? ? ????????? ? ????? ??? ????. (Muscovites are really very nice. Just think -- he gave me a chocolate bar just because I held his eggs in the metro!)

Now replay this scene in the New York subway with a guy holding a bunch of tennis balls.

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