Russian Language Blog

Beyond «рука» and «нога»: Words for (outside) body parts Posted by on Aug 15, 2012 in language, Russian for beginners

When you first begin studying Russian, one of the things they tell you is that рука can be translated as either “hand” or “arm” — and similarly, нога can mean either “foot” or “leg.” Well, that’s pretty darn convenient for the beginning student, with fewer new words to memorize!

But wait — what if you really NEED to say, precisely, “the part of my нога between the toes and the ankle”? And how do you say “ankle,” for that matter? In this post, we’ll take a look at some of those more specific terms for your external body parts — thereby completing our look at human anatomy that began with a journey through the digestive tract.

When the U.S. launched the Pioneer space probes, we included this helpful diagram showing extraterrestrial chefs all the juiciest, meatiest cuts of the human body, along with “driving directions” to our planet…
After you’ve read this post, you’ll know the Russian names for most of the parts depicted!

Let’s first take a minute to review the declension for a noun you may already know: голова (“head”).

голова (“head”)
sing. pl.
nominative голова головы
genitive головы голов
dative голове головам
accusative голову головы
instrumental головой головами
prepositional голове головах

Notice that in the acc. sg. and nom./acc. pl., the stress shifts from the ending to the first syllable го-, while in the gen. pl., the stress is on the second syllable -лов-. But in all the other forms, the word is “ending stressed.” Theoretically, the gen. pl. is ending-stressed, too, but since the genitive plural of feminine nouns typically has a “null ending” (aka “Ø-ending”), the stress is forced back onto the stem, as it has nowhere else to go! And the nouns рука and нога follow essentially the same stress-shifting pattern: all forms are ending-stressed except acc. sg., nom./acc. pl., and gen. pl., which are stem-stressed.

With that grammar lesson out of the way, let’s check out some vocabulary, beginning with…

Parts of/on the голова (“head”)

The human face as a whole is лицо, but we can divide it into smaller parts. The forehead is лоб (gen. sg. лба), and right below that we find the брови (“eyebrows”; gen. pl. бровей). You may already know глаза (“eyes”), but around each глаз you’ll find веки (“eyelids”; nom. sg. веко) as well as ресницы (“eyelashes”).

On either side of the head are the уши (“ears”; gen. pl. ушей; nom. sing. ухо). But if you decide to get your ears pierced for a серьга (“earring”), you may want to specify whether you want the hole in the мочка (“earlobe”) or in the раковина (the cartilaginous upper part of the ear — lit., “seashell”).

Two other words you might already know are нос (“nose”) and рот (“mouth”; gen. sg. рта). But to either side of these you’ll find a щека (“cheek”; nom. pl. щёки). And the holes in your нос that you breathe through are the ноздри (“nostrils”, nom. sg. ноздря). Towards the bottom of the face, we have the челюсть (“jawbone; [lower] jaw”) and the подбородок (“chin”) — note that this word derives from под бородой, “under the beard.” Finally, the шея (“neck”) connects the head with the туловище (“torso”). Before we move down from the head, however, let’s check out the declension of челюсть — simply because it’s a good model for feminine nouns ending in ь, and we’ll be seeing a number of those as we continue:

челюсть (“lower jaw, jawbone”)
sing. pl.
nominative челюсть челюсти
genitive челюсти челюстей
dative челюсти челюстям
accusative челюсть челюсти
instrumental челюстью челюстями
prepositional челюсти челюстях

(Unfortunately, not ALL feminine nouns in ь have predictable stress-shift to the ending in the gen. pl., dat. pl., inst. pl., and prep. pl., as челюсть does — but it’s a relatively common pattern. For instance, бровь, “eyebrow,” is бровям in the dat. pl..)

Parts of the туловище (“torso”)

As you may already know, спина refers to the entire back, and not just the “spine”. E.g., говорить о ком-нибудь за спиной is “to talk about someone behind their back.” But other parts of the torso include the грудь (fem.), which means “chest” in the singular but is generally understood as “(female) breasts” in the plural form груди. Whether female or male, all mammals have соски (“nipples”); however, don’t confuse the singular сосок (“a mammalian nipple”) with соска (“a rubber nipple on a baby’s bottle”). Finally, towards the bottom of the туловище, we have — in front — a живот (“belly, abdomen, stomach”) and — in back — the ягодица (“the buttocks”, politely).

Parts of the рука (“arm”)

The joint between the arm and the torso is the плечо (“shoulder”; nom. pl. плечи), which can also refer to the “upper arm” all the way down to the локоть (“elbow”, masc., gen. sg. локтя). Between the локоть and the запястье (“wrist”) is the предплечье (“forearm”). And everything below the wrist, which is to say the “hand” in the English sense, can be referred to as the кисть (fem.). But the soft, fleshy, front part of the кисть — i.e., the “palm” that a Gypsy fortuneteller reads — is the ладонь (fem.). Sticking out from the hand are the пальцы (“fingers”, nom. sg. палец). And, finally, the convenient word горсточка literally means “the palm and fingers formed into a cupped position,” but more often refers to the approximate quantity that will fit inside a cupped hand. So, if a Russian recipe calls for горсточка изюма, it means you need to add “about a handful of raisins.”

Parts of the нога (“leg”)

Again, let’s start at the туловище (“torso”). The legs connect to the torso at the таз (“pelvis, hipbone”). Moving downward, we first come to the бедро (“thigh”; nom. pl. бёдра). Continuing down the leg: колено is “knee,” and the noun is also used when translating the verb “to kneel”. Thus, “to kneel” — i.e., “to get into a kneeling position” — can be rendered with вставать/встать на колени (lit., “to stand onto the knees,” with “knees” in the accusative), while “to be kneeling” can be стоять на коленах (lit., “to be standing on the knees,” with “knees” in the prepositional).

Below the knee, we’ve got the boney “shin”, which in Russian is голень (fem.). But “calf” as in the fleshy back part of the lower leg is икра (nom. pl. икры) — which, for some baffling reason, is the same as the word for “caviar”!

And, at last, we come to the foot. The “footbone’s connected to the shinbone” via the “ankle,” which has two Russian translations: either лодыжка or щиколотка, take your pick. And the “foot” itself — the part that goes into a shoe — is the стопа.

P.S. That mostly covers it for the human body, but there are a few other terms that are different for non-human creatures. For example, the long-nosed face of a horse or a cat or a hamster is properly called a морда (“muzzle”). Using this word for people (instead of лицо) creates a humorous or slangy effect: Я его ударил по морде, “I punched him in the kisser.”

Similarly, брюхо is the normal, polite word for the “abdomen” of an animal. But when you use this word for humans (instead of the usual живот), the meaning is more like “potbelly” or “big beer-gut”!

Tags: , , , , ,
Keep learning Russian with us!

Build vocabulary, practice pronunciation, and more with Transparent Language Online. Available anytime, anywhere, on any device.

Try it Free Find it at your Library
Share this:
Pin it


  1. Angela Samsonova:

    Маленькая поправка: “сесть на колени” означает “разместить себя на чьи-либо колени”. Например, “Ребенок сел на колени матери”.

    А вот “опуститься на колени” или “встать на колени” – это когда человек проделывает это со своим телом 🙂 То же самое – “стоять на коленях”.

    “В церкви она встала/опустилась на колени”.
    “Во время молитвы многие стояли на коленях”.

  2. Delia:

    Another great post, Rob! Молодец!! A couple of things: сесть на колени we only use if we sit on somebody’s knees. Маша сели на колени отцу. Я сидела у него на коленях. We ourselves сидим/cадимся на корточки (squat). If someone is going to propose, he would встать на колено. Она стояла на коленях. About you PS note: you must know that there are so many synonyms to лицо и морда! I don’t even want to start!!

  3. Ard:

    In this article it is mentioned that the Russian word икра can mean both calf (part of the leg) and caviar. It may be interesting to note that in Dutch we have the same: “kuit” can mean “calf” (as part of the leg, but not child of a cow) or “collection of eggs of (any) fish” (a collective noun, like sand, dust or powder). In Dutch we also have “kaviaar” to mean the (very expensive) eggs of a sturgeon (осётр), but as far as I know Russian does not have a specific word for this; for example both the (much more affordable) red eggs of a salmon (лосось) and the black eggs of a sturgeon are called икра, and I am not sure if the English “caviar” actually denotes the specific икра of a sturgeon or the more general икра of any fish.

  4. Stas:

    To Ard: In English it’s just red and black caviar. And the same is in Russian красная и чёрная икра.

    To Rob: When you were going down arm and hand you didn’t really mention fingers. Here they are:
    thumb – большой палец
    index finger – указательный палец
    middle finger – средний палец
    ring finger – безымянный палец
    pinky – мизинец

    And toes are just called пальцы ног. Which is kinda correct because it used to be fingers when human were apes and monkeys given that we all agree with the Darwin’s theory of evolution.

  5. Rob:

    Which is kinda correct because it used to be fingers when human were apes and monkeys

    Arguably, in evolutionary terms, we used to have “toes” on both the forelimbs (руки) and hindlimbs (ноги) — and “fingers” are really “specialized hand-toes” that developed on the руки of primates.

    In support of this argument, you could examine the пальцы of animals such as грызуны (“rodents”) — there’s often not much difference in shape between the toes on the forelimbs and those on the hindlimbs. (And rats, for example, are able to use both their “hands” and their “feet” for climbing, since all of their toes are rather long and good for grabbing objects.)

  6. Rob:

    Also, thanks to both Delia and Angela for the correction about “kneeling.” I assumed that one said “встать на колени” if you “get up on your knees” from a лежачее положение (“lying down position”), but “сесть на колени” if you “go down on your knees” from a стоячее положение (“standing position”).

    So, to make sure I’ve got this straight: in all cases one uses a “stand” verb?

    “стоять на коленях” (“to be kneeling”)
    “встать на колени” (“to get on one’s knees”)
    “стать на колени” (“to go kneel somewhere”)
    “поставить на колени” (“to make someone else kneel”)

  7. Delia:

    Yes, we only use сидеть if we have an object – somebody’s knees/lap to sit on.

  8. Rob:

    Thanks, I’ve corrected the post!

    And by the way, and here’s a totally stupid story to make sure no one ever forgets the Russian word for “thighs”:

    As a college Russian student, I first learned the term бёдра from a 1968 Hollywood biography about the pioneering modern dancer Isadora “Wait, I forgot my scarf!” Duncan, as played by Vanessa Redgrave.

    Ms. Duncan had a famous romance with the younger Soviet poet Сергей Есенин, and the film shows her taking Russian lessons from a rather conservative old woman, who’s teaching her basic stuff like: «Это книга, и это карандаш…». Isadora gets bored talking about books and pencils, and asks her tutor: “Teach me how to say ‘Sergei, you have beautiful thighs’.” The Russian lady blushes in embarrassment, yet she finally whispers: «Сергей, у тебя красивые бёдра». But since Isadora is such an avant-garde and sexually liberated Free Spirit™, of course she presses onward: “Okay, and THEN how would I tell him ‘Sergei, you magnificent stallion, I want you IN me — take me right here, right now!’?” (At which point the poor teacher’s skull basically explodes à la Scanners, so we never find out what the answer is!)