Russian Language Blog

Examples of Strange Russian Expressions Posted by on May 31, 2009 in Culture, language

Sometimes Russians may say something that sounds so strange that you cannot – even though you know the meaning of all the words in the sentence they just uttered – for the life of you understand what they mean. An example is the famous expression «да нет» [‘yes no’] which I up until a couple of days ago always thought was closer to «да» than «нет» but I was wrong. When Russians say «да нет» what they really mean is «нет». For example: «Ты пойдёшь завтра в кино[‘Are you going to the movies tomorrow?] «Да нет, не пойду» [No, I’m not going].

But an even worse situation could occur when you’re a beginner at Russian or just a regular newbie in Russia and someone says to you: «Давай возьми What on Earth do they mean? Let’s try to understand by taking a closer look at these two words: «давай» is the imperative form in singular from the imperfect verb «давать» [to give] and «возьми» is the imperative form in singular from the perfect verb «взять» [to take]. Logically, the sentence «давай возьми should be translated as ‘give take!’, but let’s remind ourselves of the fact that the imperative form «давай» can also mean ‘let’s’ or ‘come on’ in Russian. Thus, when a Russian says this to you they are in fact not asking you to give them anything, but wanting you to take something from them. For example: «Давай возьми ещё кусочек тортика!» [Come on (go on) and take another piece of cake!]

Have you noticed that Russians say «мы с тобой» [‘we with you’] when what they really mean are «я с тобой» [‘I with you’]? Once you get a hang of it and understand that the «мы» in the expression «мы с тобой» doesn’t mean ‘we’ as in ‘the person speaking plus other people not present at the current moment’ but actually only two people – «я и ты» [I and you], things will move very smoothly in Russian daily life. What can be tough on the beginner is the first time you meet someone with whom you are «на Вы» and they say – with only the two of you present at the time – «мы с Вами» [‘we with You’]. You might begin to wonder “Who are all these other people?!”, but do not worry, they’re only talking about you and themselves – in plural. The first time this happened to me I started to look around me for these ‘other people’ but it, of course, turned out to be a fruitless search.

But there is another expression that truly ‘takes the cake’ as Strangest Russian Expression: «Лапшу на уши вешать кому-нибудь». Yes, what does that expression mean? Let’s break it down word by word. «Лапша» means ‘noodles; noodle soup’ [in the expression this word is in accusative: «лапшу»]; «на уши» (note that the stress falls on the preposition here!) means ‘on the ears’ since «уши» is the plural form of the word «ухо» [ear]. The verb «вешать» means ‘to hang; hang up’ and is imperfect ‘partner’ of the ‘verb couple’ that has the perfect verb «повесить». The expression’s last word, «кому-нибудь», is dative and means that the ‘somebody’ in this context is an indirect object. So, what do we get? “To hang noodle soup on the ears of someone”? Yes, as a matter of fact that is the complete translation of this expression. But does that make any sense? No, I’m afraid not. That’s because what it means has clearly very little to do with noodles, maybe it has something to do with ears, though, since it means ‘to fool somebody’ and ‘to lie to somebody’. The ‘fooling of someone’ and ‘lies told to someone’ in this expression is not first and foremost just untruthful, but more of a tricky and humorous character. I can’t seem to think of a proper English variant, maybe someone else has any idea?

I’ve asked many Russians about the origin of this expression and received different answers. The most probable – perhaps because it is both culturally and historically interesting – is that the word «лапша» in itself is an ‘exotic new thing’ since it arrived in Russia only in the early 1990’s and was for a long time something ‘foreign to Russian culture’. Hence it was (maybe still is?) something that one can hang on people’s ears – figuratively speaking – when telling lies to them.

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  1. john jaklich:

    loved the expressions. Glad you are back. Saw your you tube pictures and really enjoyed the scenes;places you visited, inside and out. Keep up the good work. You’ve certainly taught me a lot.

  2. Carl:

    One possible English variant could be “to pull the wool over one’s eyes.” Still not as odd as hanging noodles on ears, though.

    Here’s another puzzling word origin for you. When I was learning Russian, our teacher pointed out that of all the numbers, сорок, or forty does not follow the normal rules (двадцать, тридцать, etc.) His reasoning for this is the word for forty comes from an old trading term for a pile of squirrel pelts. Have you come across this in your researching?

  3. natasha:

    Josefina, awesome post! It really does not refer to the soup though, just the noodles. Here is what I found, interesting idea:

    “Лапшу на уши вешать
    Врать, рассказывать небылицы, заливать такое, что уши вянут. Причём,
    обычно лапшу поминают в тех случаях, когда враньё не злостное, а
    от избытка фантазии, желания посмеяться или просто почесать язык. Хотя
    причём тут кушанье из крутого пресного теста – сказать трудно. Да и
    вообще, этимология слова “лапша” не вполне ясна. Возводят
    происхождение лапши к различным тюркским языкам, но такие объяснения
    неудовлетворительны, ведь слова однокоренные с русской лапшой есть
    чуть не во всех славянских языках, а вот в тюркских это редкость. Так
    что скорее тюрки позаимствовали лапшу у славян. Зато в этимологическом
    словаре П.Черных нашлось предположение, что слово “лапша” произошло от
    глагола “лакать”, то есть “пить по-собачьи, прихлёбывая языком”. Hо
    ведь этим же движением дразнят болтуна: бла-бла-бла! И получается, что
    лапшу развешивать, это бездумно болтать, прихлёбывая языком…
    лопотать, лепетать. Могучая вещь этимология, особенно в руках
    дилетанта! Впрочем, мы на своём толковании и не настаиваем и заранее
    готовы принять упрёк, что в этой статье вешаем читателю лапшу на уши.”

  4. Kat:

    Maybe the noodle on the ear expression is akin to “pulling one’s leg” when you lie to someone in jest.

  5. Dennis MacLeay:

    Great blog!!! Here are a few possibilities in English:
    —“make a fool of someone”
    —“pull someone’s leg”
    —“pull the wool over someone’s eyes”


  6. Kalle Kniivilä:

    Noodles came to Russia in the 1990’s?!? Come on, are you kidding? You can find the word in Dal’, 1880 edition:

    ЛАПША ж. искрошенное рубезками тесто в похлебку; вермишель. Не осудишь и лапшицу, а прозеваешь, и воду хлебаешь. Быть бычку на веревочке, хлебать лапшу на тарелочке. Во Владимире и лапшу топором крошат, обычай, только в казенных деревнях. Без рук, без ног, лапшу крошить? горящая лучина. Лапшовый, лапшаной, к лапше относящ. Лапшевник, лапшеник м. крутая, запеченная лапша, лапшаной каравай. Лапшея ж. ниж. на сговоре или помолвке, три лапшеи подносят мужчинам лапшу, целуясь с ними, а мужья их подносят лапшу женщинам.

  7. Yulia:

    Hey, guys! It’s so exciting to find out that someone is learning Russian! I’m actually from Russia, studying in Australia at the moment. So, if you need any advice with Russian language, I’m here to help!

  8. natasha:

    Josefina, they must have been talking about Ramen Noodles coming to Russia in the 1990s. Just a guess.

  9. Richi Marciano:

    From all of my interaction with Russian speaking immigrants from the former Soviet states, the most common explanation I have found for “Лапшу на уши” is basically summed up in the following phrase –
    “You are so foolish, that if somebody hung noodles on their ears and said it was in style you would believe them.”
    More or less it means “snowjob”, or basically you are being fooled or lied to.
    Noodles have been a part of Russian cuisine ever since they discovered their Chinese neighbors, long before 1990, although the Russian government (famous for its hard-fisted political propaganda control) may not have allowed a noodle factory so many smaller cities may not have had noodles on grocery store shelves, and they deffinately were not handed out with the government cheese and butter rations, which were available only several times each month. However, with the fall of the Soviet system, many hard-core crooks and mafia bosses began importing whatever the heck they wanted to sell in Russia, and introduced many items that the disbelieving sheltered masses had never even seen before… i.e. ramen noodles, fax machines, and sport pants with more than two stripes on them. Understand that some people are currently studying in universities that to this day do not have internet.
    (И это не лапша.)

  10. Сашура:

    “домашняя лапша”, “куриная лапша” (куриный суп с лапшой) – мои любимые бабушкины блюда – с конца 50-х, а у бабушки – с конца 1910-х.
    Давайте еще немножко поработаем над этимологией и герменевтикой.
    С приветом, Сашура

  11. Russian Speaker from Marz:

    How about some translations of common idioms. Here are a few:

    Vot eto da! = Wow!
    Nu i dyela = Uh oh!
    Nye to slovo! = Tell me about it!
    Yeshyo by = And how/You bet/You ain’t kiddin’
    Voobshye = Across the board, Really (when the correct Russian word is “Sovsyem”) [among other translations]
    Nye govori(tye)! = Don’t I/You know it?!

  12. Russian Speaker from Marz:

    “Da nyet” is how you want to answer a question when the questioner expects you to say yes, but you want to say no way/you gotta be kidding/don’t be crazy.

  13. JD:

    I always translate да нет in my head as ‘absolutely not’, which works on some sort of logical level (‘absolutely’ being positive, ‘not’ being negative, the combination being negative).

  14. noone:

    The word Да in Russian has many uses. When used in the beginning of a longer sentence, it often reflects the speaker’s frustration, e.g.
    Да пошёл ты! Go the hell away.
    Да чего тебе надо. What the hell do you want.
    Да кто ты такой чтобы … And who are you to…

    So when someone says да нет the first word reflects their exasperation with you and the second word is their answer.

    Russian has many examples of otherwise meaningful words being used as interjections (междометия). For instance the word чай. Usually, it means “tea” but if someone says:
    Чай война-то началась
    they do not mean “tea the war has started”, they mean something along the lines of “Seems the war has started.”

    To summarize, yes Virginia, words in a language can have multiple meanings. Russian is no exception.

  15. Olga:

    А кто-нибудь знает как сказать: “Я уши не развешиваю, как некоторые”?

  16. Dennis:

    Olga’s query as to the meaning of “Я уши не развешиваю, как некоторые” basically means “I don’t believe everything I hear like some people do”, or more literally: ” stretch my ears to hear like some people do”. In English it might also be translated-” I’m not so gullible as other people are”.

  17. never_again:

    Back to “да нет”.
    Have you ever heard us (russian speaking guys) using it along with word “наверное” – “да нет наверное”.
    if you break it down word by word you get “да” – “yes”, “нет” – “no”, “наверное” – “surely/certainly”
    a total mess isn’t it? 🙂 but when we say this “наверное” we actualy mean “вероятно” – “likely / probably.” and the whole phrase means “Well, probably not”. like “- Сходим сегодня в кино? – Да нет наверное. Неохота”

    But English is just as crazy as russian.
    here, you can read about it here


  18. never_again:


    you forgot to say that Да sometimes means AND:

    ты да я – you and I
    то да это – that and this
    Васька да Петька – Vas’ka (shortened form of Vasily – Basil) and Pet’ka (shortened form of Peter)

  19. Leonid:

    Лапша. 1990. Strange, I was born in 1946 and sure ate “лапша” a couple years later.

  20. Wodan’s Man:

    I think the noodles-on-ears one maybe is like “pull the wool over the eyes?” Or maybe as one above said, “pull the leg.”


  21. Peggy:

    JoseFina (ref May 31)
    The phrase “something that … even though you know the meaning of all the words in the sentence – for the life of you, you cannot understand what they mean” is a good definition of what is known as an “idiom.” All languages have them, obviously. Russian isn’t unusual. Think of the puzzlement of a foreigner to English who hears someone say after a meeting, “we hit the ball out of the park,” when there was no ball and no park.

    My “counter idiom” for the noodle on the ear is “pulled the wool over their eyes,” equally puzzling to a foreigner to English (what wool?)


  22. Peggy:

    I forgot to mention that “da, nyet” means “of-course not” or “no way!” If you hear the intonation, you immediately understand what is meant.

    Da not only means yes, but is also a conjunction.

    There’s an interesting comparison to English. People say “No, yes.” Very colloquial. Hard to replicate, but means “I agree with the negative statement you just made. Example:
    “I would never go through a red light.” “No! Yes.” Meaning: “of course you wouldn’t. I would never accuse you of such a thing. You’re a great driver.”

    Imagine what foreigners think of that!!

  23. Wodan’s Man:

    I never heard of anyone saying “No, yes!” like that. 14/88.

  24. Nelson Rivas:

    Such a strange language… but I like it.
    In my little country “лапшу на уши вешать кому-нибудь” means something like “darle paja a alguien”.

    Greetings from El Salvador! 🙂

  25. Joan:

    In this case, да doesn’t mean yes. It is a conjunction with contrast meaning.

  26. Kristina:

    My native language is Russian and I always wondered how foreigners can undestand our “Да нет”, now I see).
    But there is something more confusing – that is “Да нет, не знаю” which is translated like “Yes No I don’t know”. What??? It really means just “I don’t know” but not sure about that (just like “Да нет, наверное” – “Yes No maybe”). So sometimes it may be really confusing!

  27. Denis:

    Hey Josefina! Great and insightful article. I think ‘да нет’ is closer to ‘not really’ in English. It’s an example of the so-called ‘hedging’ in discourse: when speakers ‘soften’ the otherwise harsh negation.
    Native Russians, isn’t ‘да нет’ much softer then the point-blank ‘нет’?

    – Ты устал? (Are you tired?)
    – Нет/No (strong). Да нет/Not really (soft)

    Just my two cents 🙂