From the earliest days of learning Russian as a foreign language, we all make frequent use of a переводный словарь (“translation dictionary”), whether it’s English/Russian, French/Russian, Chinese/Russian, or whatever our native language may be.
But as you gradually progress in your studies, it helps to become familiar with a different kind of reference tool, namely a Russian толковый словарь — i.e., a plain ol’ “dictionary dictionary,” with words and definitions all in Russian.
There are various such dictionaries to choose from, but undoubtedly the best-known is “Ozhegov’s Dictionary of the Russian Language,” named for its original compiler. Сергей Иванович Ожегов (1900-1964) was an eminent Soviet lexicographer, and can arguably be considered the “Russian Noah Webster”; the dictionary bearing his name remains widely accepted as the go-to authority on Russian usage.
My treasured copy of «Словарь Русского Языка С.И. Ожегова», which I love almost as much as I loved my late rats “Rugby” and “Soccer” (included for scale). Scroll down to the bottom of the post for some useless but fun trivia about this historic 1972 edition!
Of course, for beginning students, there’s one problem with a толковый словарь — absolutely everything is in Russian! For example (since I wrote about birds in my previous post), here’s what you’d find for птица (“bird”) in a dictionary like Ozhegov’s:
птица, -ы, ж. — Покрытое перьями, теплокровное, яйцекладущее, позвоночное животное с крыльями, двумя ногами, и клювом.
Obviously, if you’re new to the language, most or all of the words in the definition may be unknown to you! So why would you want to fork over money for a big, heavy, dead-tree dictionary that you can barely use because you don’t know enough Russian yet?
Fortunately, there’s another option nowadays: you can use the totally free online “Russian Wiktionary,” aka Викисловарь (ru.wiktionary.org) — whose content is substantially drawn from Ozhegov’s and other printed dictionaries.
In fact, apart from costing you nothing, Викисловарь is in some ways better than a typical dead-tree толковый словарь. For example, to save on ink and paper, the latter will generally offer rather minimal information about conjugation and declension. Look up a verb and in many cases you’ll find only the infinitive plus the 1st and 2nd singular present forms (it’s assumed that, given these, a native speaker can deduce all the other forms). But a Викисловарь word-entry will often have an exhaustively complete conjugation/declension table with every possible form that a verb, noun, or adjective can take.
Moreover — and also for reasons of economizing — a Russian printed dictionary may offer little or no info about a word’s etymology. But many (not all!) Викисловарь entries include detailed word histories connecting Russian terms with Proto-Slavic and Indo-European.
Alas, you won’t always find etymologies (or antonyms, or usage example sentences, etc.) in Викисловарь, which brings us to its primary drawback: as is the nature of “Wiki” sites, it’s largely the work of volunteers, and thus some of the entries are far less complete than others.
Even so, it’s FREE, and well worth your time to explore.
To give a simple example, the word мотор hardly needs translation, and if you even bothered looking it up in a переводный словарь, it would simply give you “motor; engine.”
But you’d get a bit more Russian vocabulary by turning to a толковый словарь, which will inform that there are two common types of мотор — the self-explanatory «электрический» and also the «двигатель внутреннего сгорания» (“engine of internal combustion”). So instead of just an English translation, you get a synonym «двигатель» that’s also worth learning, plus the phrase for “internal combustion,” which you probably don’t need as a beginner, but could be useful later.
And going back to that long-mouthful of a definition for «птица», it actually does include some words that are useful for beginners, such as “animal” and “wing.” (But you can put off «яйцекладущий», “egg-laying; oviparous” until much later! The whole definition reads “A covered-with-feathers, warmblooded, egg-laying, vertebrate animal with wings, two legs, and a beak.”)
So, if you saw my comment to Yelena’s “Russian in 5 Minutes a Day” post, in which I recommended the habit of trying to define a Russian word with a (short) Russian sentence, you could prune down that overly long dictionary definition and come up with something like:
«Птица — это животное с перьями.»
(“A bird is an animal with feathers.”)
Finally, any Russian толковый словарь is going to be chock-full of abbreviations that can be mystifying to us foreigners. So, here’s a handy-dandy table for you to print out, laminate, and stick on your refrigerator for convenient reference! Or just bookmark it, whatever:
For example, if you look up the verb хотеть in Ozhegov, the definition includes the usage note кого/что или с неопр. — meaning that it may take a noun object in the accusative (кого/что) or may be followed by an infinitive verb (с неопр.).
P.S. Don’t despair that the list seems so long — I’m certainly not recommending that you ought to throw yourself into memorizing the whole thing! But it can be worth your while if you gradually develop a “passive familiarity” with the terms so that you’ll at least sorta/kinda recognize them if you see ‘em.
P.P.S. Special Bonus: Soviet Kitsch!!!
By the way, the reason I particularly “treasure” my personal copy of Ozhegov’s dictionary is that it’s a 1972 edition (i.e., from deep in the Brezhnev era, when I was a year old!) — and read today, it’s a essentially a time-capsule of how Soviet politics intersected with the academic field of lexicography. Most of the definitions, mind you, are apolitical and still valid today. But here and there, the authors (not necessarily Ozhegov himself) editorialized without even “a whisper of a hint of a suggestion” of neutrality.
Look up капитализм, for instance, and you’ll get all the expected Marxist шаблоны (“cliches; boilerplate”), including the somewhat redundant info that капитализм is characterized by капиталисты, эксплуатирующие труд наёмных рабочих (“capitalists who exploit the labor of hired workers”). But there’s no mention of such key concepts as рыночная стоимость (“market value/worth”) — which you WILL find in a modern, post-Soviet толковый словарь, however. And the “usage example sentence” has the subtlety of a sledgehammer: Гибель капитализма неизбежна — “The extinction of capitalism is inevitable”. (Still, I have to credit the editors with SOME restraint for not using the verb угнетать, “to oppress,” or any of its derivatives…)
Of course, it’s hardly a total surprise that a Soviet dictionary would have treated капитализм in a blatantly negative way. But sometimes, “political spin” turns up in places you wouldn’t expect it. For instance, one page before the (predictably) glowing definition of коммунизм, here’s the actual entry for the word meaning “comic book” or “comic strip” — note the first three words that I’ve highlighted in red:
комикс -а, м. В буржуазных странах: небольшая иллюстрированная книжка или серия рисунков лёгкого, обычно приключенческого содержания.
(“In bourgeois countries: a small illustrated book or a series of drawings having light, usually adventure-oriented content.”)
To me, it’s fascinating that an unknown editor (or a supervising bureaucrat) considered it important to remind dictionary-users that comic books [!] are symptomatic of the bourgeoisie — and, ipso facto, inherently un-Soviet.
The adjective буржуазный and the corresponding noun буржуазия, in fact, occur with rather startling frequency in Ozhegov’s dictionary (at least in my 1972 edition), to the extent that you could make a drinking game out of it: Open the dictionary to a random word and if there’s any reference to bourgeois(ie) in the definition, everybody takes a vodka shot.