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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

The Black Sheep of the Animal Kingdom

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Глуп как баран: as stupid as a sheep

In the Russian barnyard, баран (ram) and овца (ewe) don’t have a rep for smarts. In fact, in barnyards all over the world from the start of recorded time, sheep have been perceived — correctly, in my limited experience — as slow-thinking, dim-witted and rather stubborn creatures that mindlessly follow a leader (вожак). A sheep may be cute and fuzzy, especially when it’s a wee little thing — ягнёнок (lamb). But when the Almighty was handing out brains, sheep were out in the pasture chatting about the clover.

In Russian, standard sheep comparisons focus on stupidity and stubbornness: он глуп как баран (he’s as dumb as a sheep) or он упрямый как баран (he’s as stubborn as a sheep). In English, we associate stubbornness with other creatures: as stubborn as a mule, mulish, pig-headed or bull-headed. The standard English sheep comparison, found in the word “sheepish,” stresses other qualities: docility, timidity and — after a dash of anthropomorphism — a sense of shame or embarrassment. There is something of this in another Russian and English comparison: кроткий как ягнёнок (as meek as a lamb).

A wonderfully evocative Russian expression captures the dumb sheep routine perfectly: смотреть/уставиться как баран на новые ворота (literally, to stare like a sheep at a new gate). How dumb is a sheep? He’s so dumb that he won’t enter his pen if there’s a new gate. It is used to describe someone staring without comprehension at someone or something: Я смотрел на медицинское заключение как баран на новые ворота (I stared dumbly at the diagnosis).

Both English speakers and Russian speakers agree that a flock of sheep is a mindless force, manipulated by either the вожак (leader) or пастух (shepherd). You can often find this image in newspaper opinion articles, when the author throws a fit of collective self-loathing: Равнодушные и пассивные мы, как стадо баранов — куда гонят, туда и идут (We’re apathetic and as passive as a flock of sheep: We go wherever they herd us).

There is another nice Russian ram expression that plays more on the visual image of the animal than his character: согнуть/скрутить в бараний рог (literally, to bend or roll [someone or something] into a ram’s horn). This means to get the upper hand of someone or something: Инфляцию удастся скрутить в бараний рог (We’ll get inflation under control). Тимошенко хочет скрутить Ющенко в бараний рог (Tymoshenko wants to make Yushchenko knuckle under).

And then there’s the mysterious phrase one hears at staff meetings when everyone wanders off subject. Вернёмся к нашим баранам! (Let’s get back on topic; literally, let’s return to our rams!) According to my sources, this puzzling phrase is a calque from the French — Revenons a nos moutons — and comes from a 15th-century farce called “Maistre Pierre Pathelin.” In the play, a draper is suing a shepherd for poaching one of his sheep. But the lawyer defending the shepherd didn’t pay the draper for some cloth, and the draper begins to berate the lawyer and loses the thread of his testimony. The judge keeps interrupting the ranting draper with the phrase: Let’s get back to our rams!

The sources don’t explain how this phrase wended its way from 15th-century French drama to a 21st-century Russian boardroom. So as they say: за что купил, за то и продаю (for what it’s worth; literally, I’m selling it for the price I bought it for).

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