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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Like a Dog, Only Milk-Producing

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Козья ножка: a goat’s leg, a compass, a hand-rolled cigarette

I fell in love with goats many years ago at a friend’s dacha. We were in the yard, chatting with the neighbor, when suddenly the air was rent by a piercing shriek. The neighbor’s goat had come to the fence, gotten up on her hind legs and was bleating insistently at her master. He left us with the words: Пора Розочку выгуливать. (It’s time to walk Rosie.) And the two of them sauntered out of the pasture and down the road, Rosie gamboling happily.

What a great animal: like a dog, only milk-producing.

The Russian word for goat depends on the gender: коза (nanny goat) or козёл (billy goat). Russian folklore is ambivalent about these creatures. On the one hand, they are agile, fertile creatures that eat anything — although they especially love cabbage — and produce rich milk. Ангорские козы (Angora goats) produce wool called козий пух (Angora wool, literally “goat down”), which can be turned into soft and incredibly warm socks, mittens and shawls. On the other hand, goats are notoriously stubborn, and their strange eyes, rank smell and association with the devil make them symbols of evil.

Because of their association with the devil, in Russia goats were used to fight fire with fire, metaphysically speaking. For example, every fire station had пожарный козёл (a firehouse goat) as a kind of talisman. Goats were also kept in stables to protect the horses. This was codified in the now-archaic expression служить за козла на конюшне (literally, to serve as a goat in a stable). Because the goats had no particular duties at the stable — except to scare off the occasional demon that wandered in — the expression meant “to loll about doing nothing.”

Russians use a number of goat comparisons. Она прыгает как коза. (She is as agile as a goat, literally, “She jumps like a nanny goat.”) Она упёрлась как коза. (She is as stubborn as a goat.) У него козлиная бородка. (He has a goatee.) Козлиный голос is a shrilly, unpleasant voice; драть козла (literally, to skin or flog a billy goat) is to sing shrilly or screech. Коза and козёл are also multipurpose derogatory terms that convey the sense of an active, aggressive, intrusive idiot — a stupid jerk.

Козья ножка (literally, goat’s leg) can refer to either the kind of compass you put a pencil in to draw a circle, or a hand-rolled cigarette. Забивать козла (literally, to hit/flay the goat) means to play dominos or to waste time. Etymologists think that козёл was a transformation of the words кость or козан (dice or chip used in games) and came to be applied to domino pieces. And since wiling away the evening playing dominos was not a productive use of time, the expression also means “to kill time.”

Goats’ reputed love of cabbage has given us the expression коза сыта и капуста цела (literally, the nanny goat is full and the cabbage is whole), in other words: To have your cake and eat it, too. Пустить козла в огород (literally, to let the goat into the vegetable garden) is to knowingly give access to someone dangerous. Доить козла (to milk a billy goat) means to do something useless and stupid. This can also be expressed in another way: От него как от козла молока (You get as much use out of him as you get milk from a billy goat).

I feel sorry for the billy goat someone tried to milk.

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