Russian Language Blog

Familiar unknowns Posted by on Jan 17, 2022 in Culture, Idioms, language, Uncategorized

In my blog about idioms with the word ‘white’ (белый), I got a great comment about two Russian words чернила и белила (black ink and white paint). (Thank you @samonen! Have I mentioned we love to read your comments?) Белила reminded me of the phrase белены объелся. And before you ask, белила и белена are barely connected, except for the ‘бел part, so if one were to read or hear белены объелся they might imagine someone eating too much of something white, maybe even white paint. I wasn’t able to find why “белена” is called that way, because the plant is more yellowish that white and can even be black. This well-known phrase just sounds so unusual yet so common to non-native Russian speakers. And, there are plenty more idioms just like that! Therefore, I put together a list of a few more Russian idioms that are на слуху but that contain what I like to call the “familiar unknown” kind of words.

*the drawing of a boyar is an original drawing for the blog by author’s little sister Azil’

Белены объелся

A phrase that people say at someone who is saying or doing something absurd.

REVISE: Белена (henbanes) is a plant that grows abundantly in central and southern Russia. It contains is very poisonous if consumed in large quantities and leads to hallucinations and fever. By the way, белена goes by many different names that all reflect its poisonous affect on the human body, such as блекота, бесиво, куриная слепота, одурь, дурь-трава.

In my experience, people usually use this phrase in a question, for example:

Ты что, белены объелся?

Literally: Did you eat too much of beleni? Means: Are you out of your mind?

Быть начеку

To be on guard, to be in high-alert mode, to be ready

I hear this phrase so often in both casual and formal conversations and I’m positive you’ve heard it in a movie or read it somewhere before too. Russians don’t consider this idiom literally because the word “начеку” is not used outside of this idiom anymore, with the rare expcetion of “чека для огнетушителя” (pull pin for the fire extinguisher). So, начеку is not related to the word “чек” (receipt or bill). Apparently, it stems from the word “чека”, the pin or a wedge that goes through a hole to holds parts together (like a cotter).

To use this phrase most naturally, incorporate it as an imperative “Будь начеку!” (Be ready or be on guard).

a boyar

Drawing of a boyar by author’s sister, Azil

Спустя рукава

Do something спустя рукава means to approach a task with little to no enthusiasm.

This idiom is like a beautiful little янтарный камень that trapped within itself a precious morsel of Russian history. Do you remember the verb спустить, as in ‘to lower something down’? Спустя рукава (literally, with one’s sleeves down low) dates back to 17th century when the latest fashion trend for бояре (boyars or Russian feudal lords) was to wear extra-long sleeves. As with many cultures across history, any garment of clothing, accessory, or style choice that made it impossible to do any physical labor translated to “I’m better than everybody and therefore don’t need to work”.

On the contrary, делать чтолибо засучив рукава means to do something with rolled-up sleeves, as in with enthusiasm, putting in effort.

an annoyed cat

Фото автора Anna ShvetsPexels

Морочить голову

To mess with someone’s head or to bother someone with foolish questions and requests.

Не морочь мне голову!” Have you heard this one before? My grandma has a great alternative to this idiom where she says Не суши мне мозги!” (Don’t dehydrate or dry my brain!)

At first glance, морочить, appears to be so out of nowhere, as if its only use is to convey the “stop messing with my head” sentiment. Although, if you know the words “обморок” (loss of consciousness when one faints), “морока” (a burdensome affair or task) and, most importantly, “мрак” (darkness, fog) then you have dealt with that family of words. If you think about it, all of them have to do with ‘being in a foggy state of mind’.

Are there any Russian words or phrases that strike you as “familiar unknowns”? Things you have heard many times but still not sure about what they mean. Write your answers in the comments below.

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