Idioms can be one of the most rewarding aspect of a language to learn. They’re often creative, full of imagery, and they’ll help you communicate with nuance and like a local. Each world language has its own unique batch of common idioms, and those in Russian are particularly creative.
If you’ve got any interest in Russian or are just curious about idioms in an amazing language, read on to learn more.
A Few Fascinating Russian Idioms to Put to Some Use
1. Быть не в своей тарелке
Literal translation: To not be in one’s plate
There’s an interesting origin story for this Russian idiom, and it has to do with French. In French, the word assiette can mean either “plate” or “situation” in English. Although “situation” makes more sense in this idiom, the Russian word for “plate” is used instead.
Despite the odd wording, the meaning from the original French saying has been maintained, which is something like the English, “to be a fish out of water.” The saying is used to describe someone that’s feeling out of place or out of their element. You might use it if a situation has made you or someone else feel uncomfortable or awkward.
2. Когда рак на горе свистнет
Literal Translation: When a lobster whistles from the top of a mountain
Many languages have their own version of this idiom, often involving animals and always creative. They’re used to express impossibility; when’s the last time you saw a lobster on a mountain or heard one whistling? A common English version of this is “when pigs fly.” Another is, “when hell freezes over.”
3. Водить за нос
Literal translation: To lead someone by the nose
This one may be best understood by thinking about the phrase literally. Most people wouldn’t let another lead them around by pulling on their nose because it would probably make them look a little foolish. It’s also hard not to follow someone who’s got you by the nose.
The expression is used to describe someone making a fool out of someone else, usually by lying to them. It’s similar to leading someone astray, but while also making a fool out of them.
4. Я тебе покажу, где раки зимуют
Literal translation: I’ll show you where lobsters spend the winter
Here’s another idiom featuring lobsters, and it’s best said with a menacing tone of voice. The closest English equivalent is probably, “I’ll teach you a lesson.” It’s said when someone intends to threaten some kind of severe punishment.
What do lobsters in winter have to do with punishment? Rich Russians were once known to send their peasants out to catch lobsters, or crawfish, in frozen winter waters — a supremely unpleasant task.
5. Ни пуха ни пера
Literal translation: Neither down nor feather
The English version of this saying would be, “break a leg.” Similarly, the person saying this phrase is wishing the listener good luck by, well, wishing them bad luck. In this case, instead of a referring to what could go horribly wrong during a performance, you’d be referring to an unsuccessful hunting trip.
The idea here is that by wishing someone bad luck you may be able to trick the fates into providing good luck instead.
6. Без кота мышам раздолье
Literal translation: Without a cat, mice are free
This idiom is noteworthy for having almost an exact equivalent in English, “when the cat’s away, the mice will play.” The concept is rather simple — without an authority figure or overbearing presence, people are more comfortable and free. This can also be used in the sense that people will get up to trouble if no one is watching them and keeping them in line.
7. Дать зуб
Literal translation: To give somebody a tooth
This graphic idiom is used when you want to convince someone that you are telling the truth. It might make sense to compare it to swearing on your mother’s grave or crossing your heart. If somebody is willing to give you one of their teeth, they’re probably not messing around!
8. Любовь зла, полюбишь и козла
Literal translation: Love is evil, you may love a goat
The meaning of this idiom is the same as the English, “Love is blind,” but with a little dark humor thrown in for good measure. While it’s more or less straightforward, the meaning here is that love has a mind of its own. You might not want to love a goat, but if love wills it, so it is.
9. Делать из мухи слона
Literal translation: To make an elephant out of a fly
This is another phrase that has similar equivalents in many languages. In English, it’s “make a mountain out of a molehill.” You’d use this saying when talking about something that is being blown way out of proportion. Someone that turns minor issues into grand dilemmas in their head is likely to hear this saying from time to time.
10. Дойти до ручки
Literal translation: To reach the handle
This idiom is a pretty vague one without the proper context. There is a traditional type of bread in Russia that was baked with its own handle, making it a convenient food to eat on the street. Most people didn’t actually eat the handle, however, as it was baked with lower quality dough and could be unclean because it was used as a handle. To reach the handle, then, is referring to being so desperate that you’re going to eat the handle of bread.
In English, the phrase “to hit rock bottom” is probably the closest equivalent. It’s something that’s said when someone is all out of options and can’t sink any further. Another similar saying may be, “to grasp at straws.”
11. В ногах правды нет
Literal translation: There is no truth in the legs
There might not be an idiom with quite the same meaning as this Russian one, and there’s definitely no direct comparison. The use of this saying is to encourage someone to stop, sit, and consider things calmly. In other words, stop and sit down, you can’t think clearly or reach the truth while standing.
There’s an element of kindness and patience with this popular phrase; it creates space for everyone to take a breath and think things through.
12. И ежу понятно
Literal translation: Even a hedgehog understands
This one is pretty clear, even from the literal translation. Just how smart are hedgehogs? It doesn’t really matter — if they understand what’s going on, everyone else around probably does too.
We might call it a “no-brainer” in English. You’d use this idiom when talking about something that is overwhelmingly simple or obvious.
13. молоко на губах не обсохло
Literal translation: The milk on the lips is still wet
Another graphic saying, this one is used to talk about someone that is still new at something. Like describing someone as, “wet behind the ears,” the imagery here is referring to a newborn baby that is still living off of milk.
If someone says this to you, they’re insinuating that you’re inexperienced at something.
14. Ни рыба ни мясо
Literal translation: Neither fish nor meat
Yes, there are many more types of food than fish or meat, but this Russian idiom doesn’t really acknowledge them. It’s used to describe a person and means that their personality is nothing special. Don’t get thrown off by the food theme, this one is used to describe people rather than food. There might not be any common English idioms that have the exact same meaning as this one.
15. В тулу со своим самоваром
Literal translation: To Tula with one’s one samovar
Wait, what’s a Tula and what’s a samovar? Understanding these two items is necessary for understanding why this popular idiom means what it means.
Tula is a city in Russia that’s famous for manufacturing samovars. There’s even a samovar museum in the city. Samovars are metal urns that are used to boil water. They usually have a spigot near the base and are commonly used for making tea in Russia.
The idea here is that bring your own samovar to “the land of samovars” is probably unnecessary. You might use this phrase when implying that someone is doing or bringing something that simply isn’t necessary.
16. Пахнет жареным
Literal translation: It smells like something is burning
When it’s not being used to create warmth or cook food, fires are usually a sign of trouble. Therefore, if you smell something burning, you might be aware of some trouble waiting to take place. This may even be more straightforward than the closest English version of this saying, which is, “something smells fishy.”
17. Два сапога пара
Literal translation: Two pair of boots
In English, there are a few very similar idioms: “two peas in a pod,” “cut from the same cloth,” “birds of a feather,” etc. It’s used to describe two people that are very similar in nature. It’s worth being aware of the fact that this phrase is usually used with something of a negative connotation.
18. Горе луковое
Literal translation: Onion tragedy
Unfortunately, this idiom isn’t referring to a production of produce-related misfortune. Instead, think about the tears that onions cause. It doesn’t take much for an onion to make a person start weeping, and this is exactly the characteristic of a person you might refer to as an “onion tragedy.” It’s used to describe someone that cries easily or overreacts to a mildly negative situation.
19. Денег куры не клюют
Literal translation: Chickens won’t peck at the money
If this saying is used to describe you, you’re sitting pretty. The phrase references the fact that chickens are known to eat just about anything (although they probably wouldn’t actually ever eat money). If you’ve got so much money that even your chickens won’t peck at it, you’ve got a lot!
In English, we might say that someone, “has money to burn” or ir “rolling in money.”