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Eat Carrots to Look Like Sophia Loren Posted by on May 16, 2012 in Culture, language, Russian food

Continuing with our exploration of огородная лингвистика (vegetable garden linguistics), let’s take a look at other vegetables that made their way into Russian proverbs, sayings and literature.

Лук (onion) – everyone knows that лук – от семи недуг (onion helps fight seven illnesses) and in fact so many Russian folk remedies use onion to fight just about any illness. In fact, given onion’s many кулинарные, медицинские и хозяйственные применения (culinary, medicinal and household uses), the phrase горе луковое (lit: onion grief!) seems out of place. Yet it is used a lot, especially when talking to or about незадачливый (unlucky, hapless) person as in

Что случилось, горе моё луковое, опять споткнулся и упал что-ли? (What happened, my hapless one, did you trip and fall again?)

Помидор (tomato) – another relative newcomer to Russian cuisine. The word that is so frequently associated with помидор is, strangely, синьор (signor). Why синьор помидор (signor tomato), you wonder? It is a character briefly mentioned in a popular children’s story by Gianni Rodari about a little walking and talking onion, Чиполино (Cipollino). Both Cipollino and Signor Tomato were popular and easily recognizable characters and even had a stamp issued in their honor.

Other than the Cipollino story, помидор is a star of the phrase прошла любовь, завяли помидоры (love’s gone and tomatoes have wilted). This is a light-hearted way of talking about a not-too-serious romantic involvement, but also about any sudden and unpleasant change in relationships. For example, в первые месяцы после выборов, президент был в зените популярности. Но прошла любовь, завяли помидоры и эйфория электората сошла на нет (in the first months after his election, the president was in the zenith of popularity. Yet love is gone, tomatoes have wilted and voters’ euphoria died down).

Огурец (cucumber) – have you ever tried a simple tomato and cucumber salad that is a mainstay of the Russian table in summer? Oh, that brings back not just memories, but аппетит (appetite). What’s the most important quality of a good огурец? Its свежесть (freshness), of course! No wonder that the most frequently used cucumber phrase is свежий, как огурчик (lit: fresh as a little cucumber; although in English we say “fresh as a daisy”).

Горох (peas) and бобы (beans) – first, some important grammar note. The singular горошина (a pea) is used much the same as in English – принцесса на горошине (princess and a pea), размером с горошину (the size of a pea), etc. The plural горошины (peas) is used only if there is an exact number of peas, such as королеве так не понравилась эта принцесса, что королева подложила ей не одну, а пять горошин (the queen disliked this princess so much, that the queen put not one, but five peas under her bed). Innumerable горох is used whenever we speak of more than one горошина, but the exact number is unknown or doesn’t matter, as in в этом магазине горох очень дорогой (peas are very expensive at this store).

The most popular phrase that uses either of these two vegetables in it is probably остаться на бобах, meaning to be left high and dry and back to square one. The other two, about peas, are шут гороховый (motley fool) and the phrase при царе Горохе (in the days of yore) which is a way to say that something happened a long time ago.

Им повезло, квартиру в центре купили по дешёвке ещё при царе Горохе, лет двадцать назад (They were lucky, bought an apartment in the city center cheaply way back when, about twenty years ago)

And that’s that for the огород (vegetable garden). Speaking of which, the phrase пугало огородное (a scarecrow) is used to describe someone who doesn’t look all that hot for whatever reason, such as in this phrase from a novel by one of my favorite writers, Иоанна Хмелевская (Ioanna Khmelevskaya):

К остановке я неслась сломя голову и чувствовала, как парик съехал набок, а на лоб выбилась идиотская чёлка, макияж размазался, и вообще я напоминала пугало огородное.

(I was running for dear life to the bus stop and felt that my wig slipped sideways, stupid bangs got from under it on my forehead, makeup ran and overall I looked like a scarecrow).

Next post, it’s time to talk about fruits and berries (can’t leave them out, can we?). By the way, who else loves or likes or is familiar with Ioanna Khmelevskaya?

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  1. Susanne:

    Fun bog! I learned Russian 25 years ago, did not us it for 20 and now slowly getting back. Of curse it makes it easier to read this blog and this kind of online literarure…

  2. Rob McGee:

    So can you say он проснулся, свежий как огурчик, for example? (“He woke up, fresh as a cucumber?”)

    In English, of course, cucumbers are proverbially “cool” — not in the sense of “здорово! офигенно!”, but in the sense of “acting with sang-froid“. (The French phrase has positive connotations in English, although “cold-blooded” sounds quite negative. Hmmm, from Googling, I can’t decide if хладнокровный is generally positive or negative.)

    Also, let’s not forget Я съел его печень с бобами и хорошим кьянти! 😉