Sometimes Russians say things to you and you do not understand. «Это неизбежно» [it is inevitable]. «К сожалению» [unfortunately]. And this situation may be repeated. Over and over. The situation in itself will be different every time, but the word or phrase you didn’t understand the first time will remain the same. Until you figure out «что это значит» [what it means], that is. There are two ways of figuring out the meaning of words heard but not understood in Russian (and in any other language too for that matter): 1) «посмотреть в словаре» [pfv. look in the dictionary]; 2) «спросить у русских» [pfv. ask the Russians]. The first way may not always work for two reasons: a) in Russian only ONE sound in every word is stressed – even in really, really long words like «высококачественный» [adj. fine, high grade] – and this causes trouble when you try to figure out how to spell a word that you’ve only heard spoken. There’s a great risk that you’ll end up searching for hours for the word «тапанимика», when what you really should have been looking up all along was «топонимика» [toponymy, study or research of geographical place names]. It is one thing to KNOW that an unstressed «о» [o] in Russian is pronounced like an «а» [a] – but something completely different to DISTINGUISH which ‘a-like-sound’ in a new word is really a written ‘o’…; and b) far from all words used in Russian language can be found in the dictionary. For example, the authority of all Russian-to-Russian dictionaries «Толковый словарь русского языка» [Explanatory Dictionary of Russian Language] does not include «мат» [swear words].
And Russians are not always the best at explaining exactly what they mean. Thank God we have the internet! And thankfully, God blessed the internet with Google. So now whenever you hear a word that you don’t understand all you need to do is a) ask a Russian how it is spelled; and b) «гуглить» [impfv. google] it!
This is how I finally came to terms as to what «щас» means. Every time a Russian used this word it seemed to me a mystery, for every new situation was different from the one before. From the look (and hear) of the context surrounding this word, «щас» could mean ANYTHING. Now I know that it seemed to be to be like that from hearing «щас!» in conversation with Russians because this «сленговое слово» [slang word] has TWO different meanings:
1. «Щас» is the short way of pronouncing the word «сейчас» [now, wait a second]. (Want to know why? Try this: repeat «сейчас» over and over and over again and after a while you’ll see that your mouth is saying something that actually sounds exactly like «щас»). That means that «щас» can be translated as ‘now, wait a second’ in phrases like:
«Щас приду!» – [Wait a second, I'll come (or: I'm coming)!].
«Щас тебе скажу!» – [Wait a second and I'll tell you].
«Щас сделаем» – [We'll do it now].
2. «Щас» means the same thing as the word «нет» [no, not].
Now here’s where it gets tricky. With the right kind of emotional intonation – as a rule it is always followed by an exclamation mark when written – the following:
«Щас!» should (given the proper kind of context) not be mistaken for anything else but [No way!].
It is important to note that to mean «нет» it should be pronounced like «щаааааааааас» with a long, stooping intonation. It is okay to exaggerate this – it’ll make the risk of Russians misunderstanding considerably smaller. Let’s give this word this ‘proper kind of context’ and see if it makes more sense:
«Оля, ты пойдёшь на свидание с Петей?» – [Olya, will you go on a date with Petya?]
«Щас!» – [No way!] (Olya can also elaborate some and say: «щас пойду» [No, I'm not going]).
«Кажется, хоккейная команда нашего университета сегодня выиграет матч» – [It seems like our university's hockey team will win the game today].
«Щас выиграет!» – [No way they'll win! (or: Yeah right they'll win!)].
At the end of the day – and in the end of this post – it is important to remember two things: 1) «сленг» [slang] is not «только для рабочего класса» [only for the working class], but «может быть украшением речи любого интеллигента» [can be a decoration in the speech of any intellectual] when used with consideration under allowing circumstances; and 2) if you don’t ask, you’ll never know.