Russian Language Blog

Ba-ba-ba-bird is the word… Posted by on Sep 12, 2012 in Culture, language, Russian for beginners

A couple months ago, I did a post about an imaginary game show called «Назовите эту птицу», the object of which was to guess the identities of six feathered “mystery panelists.” But in writing the post, I had considered more than a dozen different birds before eventually culling the list down to six. And while doing the research on these birds, I was reminded that some species are the subject of interesting Russian folklore, and they appear in a lot of popular expressions.

First, let’s consider a few домашние птицы. Any list of “domesticated birds” must surely begin with the ubiquitous and noble курица — aka Gallus gallus domesticus, or “chicken.”
Strictly speaking, курица refers to the самка (“the female of a given animal species”)– in other words, a “hen” — while the самец (“the male of a species”) is петух (“rooster”). In archaic Russian, the masculine singular noun кур referred to a rooster, but nowadays that word has been almost entirely replaced by петух, and survives mainly in the expression «как кур во щи попал» Literally, that means “like a rooster (who) fell into the shchi“, and it’s a way of describing your reaction to что-либо неприятное и неожиданное (“anything unpleasant and unexpected”).

When you’re talking about hens and roosters collectively, The plural of курица is куры (genitive: кур), which can mean “hens” or may refer to “chickens” plural. And this plural form also shows up in some popular sayings. For instance, с курами ложиться (lit., “to lie down with the chickens”) means “to go to bed very early, as soon as it gets dark.” (Evidently, chickens live by the motto вовремя лечь спать, вовремя встать, roughly “early to bed, early to rise”!)


And «у него денег куры не клюют» — literally “At his house, the chickens aren’t pecking for money” — is another way of saying у него очень много денег (“He’s got lots of money”).

«Курам на смех» (lit., “as amusement for the chickens”) basically suggests that that something or someone is so idiotically absurd, only poultry would find it funny. You should keep in mind that мозг у курицы размером с крупную изюмину (“the brain of a chicken is about the size of a large raisin”) — and therefore chickens, as a general rule, do not possess the most sophisticated чувство юмора (“sense of humor”). (By the way, fans of Joss Whedon’s sci-fi series Firefly may recall that «Курам на смех!» is used at one point as a “control phrase” for a character who was brainwashed to be a government assassin.)

Finally, a baby chicken is a цыплёнок, plural цыплята. And there’s a well-known saying that uses it in the plural: Цыплят по осени считают, which literally means “[People] count the chicks after the autumn,” and is equivalent to “Don’t count your chicks before they hatch.”

At this point, вам, вероятно, надоело курами (“you’re probably sick-and-tired of chickens”), so let’s turn to a few other domesticated birds…

The word гусь is really easy for English speakers, because it sounds almost exactly like its English translation: “goose”! In Russian, geese are sometimes regarded as proud and haughty — hence the saying «гусь свинье не товарищ», “the goose is not a comrade to the pig”. You can use one to explain why some people just don’t mix well with others. Naturally, some pigs might be offended by the goose’s snobbishness, but a well-adjusted hog with good self-esteem might simply shrug and say «мне как с гуся вода» — “[Your rudeness rolls harmlessly off me] like water from a goose!”

In the same пруд (“pond”) where the goose lives, one might find an утка (“duck”). However, if you hear Russians grumbling about a газетная утка, they don’t mean a talking duck who works as a newspaper reporter! In this context, утка colloquially means a ложный слух (“false rumor”) — which in English is sometimes called a “canard,” from the French word for “duck.” Both the English and Russian usages go back to an old French expression that literally meant something like “to half-sell someone a half-duck”, i.e., “to swindle.”

Of course, the most famous duck in fairytales was only a baby, in H.C. Andersen’s “The Ugly Duckling” — who’s known in Russian as the Гадкий Утёнок. (Although гадкий is a rather strong word and is perhaps closer to “repulsive” than merely “ugly.”) But we all know that the hero of the tale wasn’t an утёнок at all, but a лебедёнок (” cygnet”), and thus it’s predestined by his DNA that someday, он окажется великолепным лебедем (“he’ll turn out to be a magnificent swan”). As in English, if a famous actor/musician/dancer is ready to retire, and decides to give one last public performance, then one call it a «лебединая песня (“swan song”).

Дикие птицы (“Wild birds”)

The name of the glorious павлин (“peacock”) coincidentally looks like it might be a derivative of Павел, which might make you wonder: “Pavel WHO?” But the boring truth is павлины aren’t named for some famous “Paul”; the word is cognate with the classical Latin term pavo — from which also comes the “pea-” in “peacock.” As in English, peacocks are associated with pride and vanity, and there’s a really wonderful expression for a mediocre person who has an over-inflated opinion of himself: «ворона в павлиньих перьях» (“a crow in peacock feathers”).

And that brings us to ворона, which normally signifies the common European crow, who resembles an American crow in a sleeveless gray sweatshirt.

A «белая ворона» (lit., “white crow”) is, therefore, a person who’s noticeably different from everyone else in the crowd and “sticks out like a sore thumb.”

Of course, different people stand out for different reasons, good and bad; and if we’re talking about someone who’s noteworthy because he usually has a yawning, dullwitted expression on his face and unfocused eyes, then you might say он всё время считает ворон (“he’s always counting crows”).

Another member of the crow family is the сорока (“magpie”) — pay attention to the stress so that you don’t get it mixed up with сорок (“forty”)! These highly intelligent birds are known for their noisy chattering and their ability to mimic sounds, including doorbells, car horns, and sometimes even human speech. So if you’re passing along some scandalous gossip but don’t want to reveal the source, you can simply claim that “a magpie brought the news on her tail,” much as English-speakers say “a little bird told me”: Сорока на хвосте принесла, что Дарт Вейдер оказывается отцом Льюка!— “Rumor has it that Darth Vader turns out to be Luke’s father!!”

And, finally, we come to the воробей (“sparrow”). For some reason, these cute little birdsshow up in Russian idioms as gun-targets! For example, there’s the expression «стрелять из пушки по воробьям» (lit., “to shoot at sparrows with a cannon”). It means to expend a lot of effort/resources for minimal benefit, and thus it’s the exact opposite of the English “to get plenty of bang for the buck”. But a sparrow that has dodged cannonballs and lived to tell the tale can be described as a «стреляный воробей» (lit., “a shot-at sparrow”), which can mean a battle-tested soldier, or more generally, any опытный человек (“experienced person”). So if it’s true that “God counts every sparrow which falls”, then Russians must keep God very busy! 😉


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  1. kavita thapliyal:

    thanks for sharing these colloqioal expressions with us.

  2. Rob McGee:

    утка colloquially means a ложный слух (“false rumor”) — which in English is sometimes called a “canard,” from the French word for “duck.” Both the English and Russian usages go back to an old French expression

    Or, maybe not. Russian Википедия says that утка in the sense of “false rumor” comes from German Ente (which likewise means both “duck” and “false rumor”), which in turn comes from the abbreviation “N.T.”, from the Latin non testatum, “not attested/witnessed.”

    (Frankly, this etymology strikes me as “too cute to be true” — But пёс его знает!)

  3. Stas:

    If you ложишься с курами, then you, of course, встаёшь с петухами.

    I would also change the piece “вам, вероятно, надоело курами” to вам, вероятно, надоели куры. And even with уже as in вам, вероятно, надоели куры.

    Because Слово – не воробей, вылетит – не поймаешь…

  4. Stas:

    as in вам, вероятно, уже надоели куры.