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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Like a Saddle on a Cow

Корова: cow; a person exhibiting bovine characteristics

Way back in Russian 101, we learned the animal paradigm: кот (cat) котёнок (kitten) котята (kittens). Then we learned the meat paradigm: свинья (pig) свинина (pork). And then we were introduced to the queen of the barnyard, корова (cow), and the whole system went to hell in a hand basket. Unfortunately for us foreigners, the current Russian words for cows and things bovine came from different root words and now seem to have little in common.

We start with bovine mom and pop:  корова (cow) and бык (bull). After they meet and fall in love, they have телята (calves). A baby bull might be телёнок or бычок, while a baby cow could be теля, тёлка, or тёлочка.  These words are related to another kind of bull — the one in the zodiac — Телец (Taurus). But you often hear the words бурёнка or бурёнушка, affectionate names for бурая корова (brown cow), which — since there are a lot of brown cows in Russia — can be a stand-in for cow in general.  

And then there’s meat. Телята produce телятина (veal), but sadly for us foreigners, коровы do not produce коровина. Cows give us говядина (beef). This puzzle is actually easily explained: говядо is the old Russian word for large horned livestock (oxen, cows, bulls). For some reason, the word for the animal disappeared from everyday speech, but its meat lives on.

In Russian folklore and culture, корова is a symbol of wealth, well-being and maternal care. Cows are thought of as hardy, fat, obedient and lugubrious creatures. Корова is a good word to have in your special insult pocket, but should be used with care. It can describe any fat, clumsy person, particularly of the female persuasion. Сижу я в трамвае, вдруг какая-то корова плюхается рядом со мной и прижимает меня к стенке (I was sitting in a tram when this cow suddenly plops down next to me and crams me against the wall.) Somewhat less offensive is the phrase здорова как корова (literally, healthy as a cow), which describes those hardy and hefty women who, as far as I can tell, actually run the country (don’t tell the bulls).

English and Russian share several cow expressions, like священная корова (sacred cow), золотой телец (the golden calf) and дойная корова (a milk cow or, figuratively, a cash cow).

But there are also some native Russian cow expressions. I like как корове седло (like a saddle on a cow), which is something you probably shouldn’t say to someone’s face: Платье ей идёт как корове седло (on her, the dress is as flattering as a saddle on a cow). There are other phrases that depend on a greater intimacy with cow behavior than us city slickers have. For example, как корова языком слизнула (literally, like a cow licked it) is used to describe the disappearance of someone or something: One lick of a cow’s rough tongue and it’s gone forever. Я знаю, что положила номерок в сумку, но его там нет! Как корова языком слизнула! (I know I put the coat check tag in my purse, but now it’s gone — it disappeared into thin air).

And I guess cows give birth (телиться) in a kind of lazy way. So you can ask someone Ну что ты телишься?! (What are you dragging your feet for?) Or you can say: он ни мычит, ни телится (literally, he doesn’t moo and doesn’t calve), which means: he’s dithering.

Who moo?

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