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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Tooting One’s Horn

Рог: horn

Maybe this is a girl thing, but I’ve always been a bit confused by horn imagery and expressions. I get why the horn (рог) is a symbol of both masculine strength (visual image) and feminine fertility (it’s hollow). So kings and even biblical prophets have been depicted wearing horns, and after a harvest, tables are decorated with рог изобилия (the horn of plenty, cornucopia). But I’ve never quite understood why a cuckold is depicted in horns in many cultures, including Russian. Shouldn’t his horns be shorn?

Etymological explanations cite ancient cultures in which women put horned helmets on their husbands, sent them off to war, and then stayed home to fool around with … whom? “Yippee, Bronwyn, the men are gone! Let’s hit on that 12-year-old kid or that 64-year-old neighbor!” Color me skeptical.

In any case, Russian has a number of horned expressions that are handy to know. Рог refers to any kind of horn, antler or spur. It also refers to a musical horn and a horn for tobacco (табачный рог) or gunpowder (пороховой рог). In geography, it can mean a spur of land, like Африканский Рог (the Horn of Africa). You might also hear the mysterious expression у чёрта на рогах (literally, “by the devil on horns”), which is a variant of the equally mysterious expression у чёрта на куличках. Куличи are swampy places in the woods, where, according to one explanation, evil spirits are thought to abide. Both expressions mean “some godforsaken place.”

There is also a related word, рогатка, which is any Y-shaped stick, but most commonly a slingshot. Рогатка is also a barred gate, like the kind once lowered at night in cities. This has given Russian the expression ставить рогатки (literally, “to put up the gate” — or figuratively, “to impede”). США перестали ставить рогатки на пути России в ВТО. (The United States is no longer sand-bagging Russia’s admission to the WTO.)

Other expressions play on the image of horns and heads. Согнуть (or sometimes скрутить, свернуть) в бараний рог (literally, “to twist someone into a ram’s horn”) is to bend someone to one’s will. Зачем жене скручивать мужа в бараний рог? (Why should a wife wrap her husband around her little finger?) Similarly, обломать (or сломать) рога (literally, “to break someone’s horns”) is to force someone to submit to one’s will or to beat someone. You may come across this in articles about sports and war: Россия обломала рога грузинской армии. (Russia trounced the Georgian army.) Logically, дать в рог (literally, “to hit someone in the horn”) is to beat or punish someone, and получить по рогам (literally “to take it in the horns”) is to be beaten or punished. But быть на рогах (literally “to be on horns”) is to be drunk.

And if you hang around with guys with nicknames like Бандит (Bandit) or Рыбка (Fishy), you might hear the expression замочить рога (literally “to get one’s horns wet”), which means to be involved in some crime. Наставить рога (literally “to put horns on someone”) is to cheat on one’s spouse or to sleep with someone’s else spouse. Вам жена наставила рога! (Your wife is cheating on you!) Она родила сына, которого отец не признал, считая, что ему наставил рога некий Петров. (She gave birth to a son whom her husband didn’t accept, believing that she had cuckolded him with a certain Petrov.)

In English, of course, we’d probably say Petrov was a horny devil.

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