Russian Language Blog

Chemistry For Muggles – Part 2 Posted by on Nov 4, 2011 in language

If you’ve been reading this blog for a while, you might remember the first part of Rob’s “Chemistry for Muggles” post. Well, this is the second part of it, as promised. And yes, there will be a third and final part appearing early next week. This post covers both some technical terms and some excellent Russian expressions. Without further ado, here’s Rob:

This is Part 2 of «Химия для Маглов» [Chemistry for Muggles] – a look at chemistry from the point of view of «неспециалист» [layperson], discussing terms that you might find in an ordinary newspaper article.

There are a number of important metallic elements that either occur naturally in a pure form, or that are relatively easy to extract from their ores. For this reason, they were independently discovered by different human civilizations many centuries ago, «и поэтому, такие элементы называются очень по-разному, в одном или другом языке» [and therefore, such elements are called by widely different names in this or that language]. In English, the names for these elements are typically Germanic (rather than Greco-Latin), while in Russian, «естественно» [naturally], the terms are for the most part Slavic.

As I mentioned, many elements are found in nature mostly in compounds. For example, «железо» [iron] combines very readily with «кислород» [oxygen] — which is to say that it «легко ржавеет» [easily rusts]. The noun “rust” is «ржавчина», and the adjective “rusty” is «ржавый». The word «ржаветь» [to rust] comes up unexpectedly in the popular expression «за ним (мной, тобой, ними и т.д.) не заржавеет» [he (I, you, they, etc) will do it at a drop of a hat].

The unprecedented strength of «железо» has inspired numerous metaphorical uses, from «железная логика» [ironclad logic] to «железная воля» [will of iron] to «железный занавес» [the Iron Curtain]. For that matter, the Russian adjective for “relating to trains and railways,” namely «железнодорожный», derives from «железная дорога», literally “iron road” — despite the fact that the «рельсы» [rails] are in fact made from «сталь» [steel].

Anyway, sometime after 1500 BCE or so, «древние народы» [ancient peoples] in both «Китай» [China] and «Ближний Восток» [the Middle East; lit., Near East] figured out how to infuse «железо» with «углерод» [carbon] to produce «сплав» [alloy] known in Russian as «чугун» — the blackish-gray form that’s called “cast iron” in English. «Чугун» is very hard, but is surprisingly «хрупкий» [brittle] like «стекло» [glass], making it difficult to shape with a hammer.

Before too long, people figured out how to process this brittle form of «чугун» to make «ковкий чугун» [lit., “malleable iron”, but also translatable as “wrought iron”]. Even though «ковкий чугун»  was stronger and more flexible than pure iron or bronze, it was still comparatively brittle. But ancient people discovered that adding small amounts of other metals to the iron and carbon would yield something even more amazing: the revolutionary alloy called «сталь» [steel]. For example, the relatively modern alloy called «нержавеющая сталь» [stainless steel, lit., “non-rusting steel”] is «сплав железа с хромом» [an alloy of iron and chromium].

For centuries producing «сталь» was a costly, labor-intensive process that was reserved for items that had to be «как можно крепче и прочнее» [as tough and durable as possible] — such as «мечи» [swords] and «броня» [armor]. There was a time when «стальные мечи» [steel swords] were the ultimate high-tech «оружие» [weapon], far superior to swords and armor made from…

«медь» [copper]! Like iron, «медь» is generally found in the form of mineral ores — such as the beautiful green «малахит» [malachite]. The pure metal is very soft and unsuitable for weaponry. But various ancient civilizations discovered that when «медь» is melted together with the proper amount of «олово» [tin], you get the stronger, harder alloy «бронза» [bronze], which was THE cutting-edge weapons technology — pun fully intended! — until ironworking came along. (Hence «бронзовый век», the historical “Bronze Age” of human civilization). Considerably later, people discovered the metallic element «цинк» [zinc] and learned «как сплавлять медь с цинком чтобы производить блестящую, золотистую латунь» [how to alloy copper with zinc to produce shiny goldenbrass].

Moving along in the periodic table, there is quite a number of metallic elements that are biologically toxic and can cause serious illness or death as a result of repeated exposures over time. But «мышьяк» [arsenic] is so «смертельно ядовитый» [lethally poisonous] that it can potentially kill humans, rats, or cockroaches in a single dose. And this explains the Russian name «мышьяк» – arsenic was widely used to get rid of «мыши» [mice].

The spelling of «серебро» [silver] may remind X-Men fans of the huge Telepath-O-Matic computer “Cerebro”. Of course, Dr. Xavier named his mindreading machine after “cerebrum”, which comes from an Indo-European root meaning “head”, but has no connection with «серебро». And yet the two CAN be linked by an odd coincidence of science! Living (and freshly dissected) cerebral tissue is normally a dull pinkish color, but is frequently referred to as «серое вещество» [gray matter]. This false notion that brains are gray resulted from the laboratory practice of staining sliced-up cerebrums to make certain structures more visible. And the cerebral tissue was dyed gray with — you guessed it! — «серебро».

Throughout history and across many cultures, silver has been known as “the precious metal that’s not QUITE as precious as gold”, hence such expressions as «слово — серебро, молчание — золото» [A word is silver; silence is gold] and «дети – серебро, а внуки – золото» [children are silver, but grandchildren are gold].

As mentioned in the above discussion of copper, ancient people were familiar with «олово» [tin] – the Russian name is probably cognate with Latin albus, “white”, in reference to the whitish patina that forms on the pure metal. In English, a person who can’t tell well-played music from off-key music,  is said to have a “tin ear.” This expression can’t be translated literally «на русский язык» [into Russian]; instead, a Russian might say «ему медведь наступил на ухо» [a bear stepped on his ear]! However, Russian does have the phrases «оловянные глаза» [expressionless eyes] and «оловянный взгляд» [empty gaze].

A metal object that is «покрытый тонким слоем олова» [covered with a thin layer of tin] is described in Russian with an adjective «лужёный» [tin-plated], which was borrowed from the German noun Lot, meaning «припой» [solder]. The phrase «лужёный желудок» [lit., “tin-plated stomach”, but equivalent to “cast-iron stomach” in English] describes a person who can eat large quantities of «пикантные блюда» [spicy-hot dishes] or drink lots of alcohol without feeling sick. And someone who’s able to sing or shout loudly and powerfully is said to have «лужёная глотка» or «лужёное горло» – both phrases mean “tin-plated throat”, but English speakers would probably say “lungs of steel”.

«Золото» [gold], because it was one of the first metals used by humans and also because of its beauty and rarity, shows up in even more proverbs and metaphoric uses than «железо» does. «К примеру» [for example], those naughty ancient Israelites melted down their earrings to make a big shiny idol, which gave us the phrase «золотой телец» [the Golden Calf]. (However, note that in other contexts, the usual word for “baby cow” is «телёнок», not the archaic «телец»)

Meanwhile, ancient Greek mathematicians and architects obsessed endlessly over the «эстетические свойства золотого сечения» [the aesthetic properties of the golden section], while the Roman sage Horace recommended to «найти золотую середину» [to find the Golden Mean], also known in English as the “happy medium”.  Presumably, married couples who follow this advice might be more likely to «праздновать золотую свадьбу» [celebrate [their] 50th anniversary; lit., “golden wedding”]. But just keep in mind that «золотистый предмет» [a gold-colored object] may turn out to be merely «позолоченый» [gilded] or worse, «латунный» [brass] because, as the saying goes, «не всё то золото, что блестит» [All that glistens is not gold]!

The first thing that I expect many Russian learners will say on encountering the word «ртуть» [mercury] is “How on God’s green earth do you pronounce that?!”, followed by «почему же славяне такие скупые на гласные буквы?!» [why are Slavs so stingy with vowels?!].

Anyway, «ртуть» has been known since ancient times for the strange property of being «жидкость» [a liquid] at normal room temperatures, for which reason it was considered sort of magical. And before the 20th century, physicians would use the stuff for all sorts of highly questionable medical purposes, such as «ртутные клизмы» [mercury enemas]! The metal’s quick-flowing nature also figures into at least one common figure of speech, «подвижный как ртуть» [as lively as quicksilver, which is another English word for mercury].

Finally, we come to «свинец» [lead] – one of the heaviest metals that’s not normally radioactive. The first thing to keep in mind is not to get the word confused with «свинья» [pig; swine], or any of the other Russian terms related to pigs! For example, «свинский» means “piggish” in the figurative sense of “dirty” or “rude”, but «свинцовый»  means “containing lead”.

The noun «свинец» can be used as a synonym for «пуля» [bullet], just as in the famous line from the poem “Death of the Poet” by Mikhail Lermontov – «С свинцом в груди и жаждой мести» [With a bullet in his chest and thirst for revenge].

And the word is also used in purely metaphoric expressions. For example, «горькие воспоминания лежат на сердце свинцом» [The bitter memory weighs on my heart like lead].

And on that heavy note, we’ll wrap up Part 2 — but our survey of the elements will conclude in the upcoming Part 3!

But first, a little trivia question for you guys to Google:

Both the English and Russian names of two other commonly known (and industrially important) metallic elements derive from German words that more or less signify «чёрт; бес; нечистый дух, и так далее» [devil; demon; unclean spirit; et al]. Can you identify these two elements?

«Вот вам подсказка» [here’s a clue for you]: Both metals are often found alongside «медь», but medieval German copper-miners considered them to be worthless nuisances. So, either out of genuine «суеверие» [superstition] or merely «в шутку» [jokingly], the miners used to say that devil had buried these “useless” metals next to the copper, just to make a hard-working miner’s life more difficult!

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  1. Rob McGee:

    Лучше поздно, чем никогда!


  2. Agnieszka:

    у меня сейчас essay о элементах который мне надо написать. Большое спасибо 🙂

  3. David Roberts:

    Congratulations Rob on a brilliant post. You managed to cover three of my favourite topics – Русский язык, Химия и золотое сечениe (связено c рядoм Фибоначи). I’m an organic chemist so when it comes to metals I’m a layman so here are my answers to your teaser: Кобальт и Никель.

  4. Jim Nichols:

    I’m thinking that one of the mystery elements might be sulfur, which is often associated with diabolical doings, but of course, that’s not a metal. Anyway… Thanks a million for the well thought out and entertaining post! (Worth it’s weight in gold 🙂 !

  5. simon:

    Более чем интересно,удивительно.
    Очень спасибо.Я надеюсь,что прочитать в третей части.

  6. Galina:


    You must say ‘Большое спасибо. надеюсь, что прочитаю и третью часть’ not ‘Очень спасибо.Я надеюсь,что прочитать в третей части’.