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How to Curse like a Russian Posted by on Mar 22, 2013 in Culture, language, when in Russia

Ok, the usual disclaimer goes here: if you are easily offended, do not read this post. Parental advisory recommended. Using any of these words in public is considered mild hooliganism and is punishable by law.

The three whales of русский мат (Russian curse words) are the three rude words for a male sexual organ, female sexual organ and the sexual act itself. The forth word has a literal meaning of “prostitute”. This in itself is neither new nor original.

What sets Russian obscenities apart from English-language ones is the enormous flexibility and depth of meaning thanks to all the suffixes, prefixes, and compound words formed with матерный (obscene) roots.

It wouldn’t be an exaggeration to say that mastering just one of these three words would get you closer to mastering both the mechanics and that certain je ne sais quoi of the Russian language than штудирование (thorough study of) “regular” textbooks or even reading the classics.

Speaking of the classics, it should come as no surprise that they more than dabbled in мат. I’m not even talking about the modern classics, such as Pelevin or Erofeev. Nope, I mean such светоч (luminary) of Russian literature as Mikhail Lermontov and Anton Chekhov and, of course, Наше Всё (Our Everything), the great Alexander Pushkin himself.

Anyway, most of the times the obscenities are not used in their literal sense, to describe детородные органы (genitals) or половой акт (sexual intercourse). Instead, they are used for just about anything else. They are used to describe a full range of emotions, complex thoughts and actions, and just about any conceivable situation.

But this mind-boggling flexibility achieved with just four very short words pales in comparison to the virtuosity of a true дока (old hand) who can stack them together into intricate ругательства (invective) known as трёхэтажный or многоэтажный мат (the three-stories or multistory obscenity).

Still, please think twice before using even mild матерные слова (obscene words) in a conversation. Yes, you might come across these words in books. And yes, you might overhear them on the streets or in YouTube videos. And yes, expect to hear at least a few of these крепкие словечки (strong words) in a casual atmosphere of застолье (a feast), especially if the conversation turns to politics or economy. Still, resist the temptation to join in or to show off your grasp of colloquial Russian, especially if

1. You are in the presence of minors or women

2. You are a woman. Women should never материться, как грузчики (curse like a stevedore).

3. You do not have a very firm grasp of all the intricacies of meaning and usage. One wrong prefix and you just call something awesome a total junk. Or, in case of the image at the top of the post, wrong stress turns a very rude “don’t talk!” into no less rude “don’t steal!”

4. You are in a public place – remember, it is against the law, even if your favorite soccer team is not doing their best… again.

Speaking of cursing in public now being illegal, the new Russian law levies fines on any незапиканный (unbleeped) or incorrectly/partially bleeped out нецензурная ругань (strong language; lit: bad language that is not allowed by censorship). This goes not only for what the anchors or journalists themselves might utter, but extends to comments and reactions from readers, listeners and viewers, including comments on the articles or news clips.

Sounds outrageous? Well, as the State Duma explains: свобода речи – это не значит вседозволенность (freedom of speech doesn’t mean permissiveness).

Interestingly, the new law does not create a чёрный список (black list) of forbidden words. Instead, issues will be resolved on a case-by-case basis by expert philologists. One of the authors of the new law explained that the offensive word must be bleeped or *** enough to completely obscure its meaning. He further said:

Если в слове из трёх букв уберёте центральную букву и замените её звёздочкой, это не значит, что никто не поймёт, что у вас написано

(If you take out the middle letter from a three-letter word and replace it with an asterisk, it doesn’t mean nobody understands what you have written)

Can you guess which three-letter word слуга народа (the people’s servant) is talking about? And speaking of the phrase “three-letter word”… It’s a widely used euphemism for the most widely used obscene word in the Russian language. So when you say “да пошёл ты на все три буквы!” (lit: go to all the three letters!) everyone knows exactly what you meant (a very strong version of “go to hell!”).

Does it mean that the public use of euphemisms, such as the above “three-letter word” is also punishable? Too bad because there are truly clever Russian euphemisms for obscenities, such as the word скоммуниздить meaning “to steal”, раздолбай meaning “a good-for-nothing person”,  and едрёна мать, one of the countless Russian phrases with the meaning closest to the English four-letter exclamation.

This brings to mind one бородатый анекдот (an old joke):

На одном заводе процветала матерщина. Директор строго-настрого запретил материться на производстве. Ругаться перестали, но упала производительность труда. Директор на планерке спрашивает ветерана – дядю Ваню, в чём дело.
– Да, знаете, Петр Иванович, раньше бывало скажешь: “Иван, подай вон ту хреновину”, а сейчас пока вспомнишь, как она называется – полчаса пройдет.

Try to translate it using this vocabulary or, if all else fails, Google Translate:

процветать – to flourish

матерщина – from мат (obscenity) is the noun that describes the entire body of obscene words

строго-настрого – an adverb meaning “in the strictest way”, compare to other adverbs such as крепко-накрепко (in the strongest way), перво-наперво (the very first thing), мало-помалу (little by little), скоро-наскоро (quickly)

материться – to use obscenities in one’s speech

планёрка – a work meeting

Oh, but it looks like I haven’t told you the exact words for the big three Russian obscenities. Well, you see, I can’t do it. Women should not curse. Plus, as my Mom always said, интеллигентный человек не матерится (an intellectual does not use obscenities). To this day, it режет слух (sets teeth on edge; lit: grates hearing) when someone around me curses in Russian.

Besides, there are quite a few great resources on the subject, including this Wikipedia article (in English), this Wikipedia article (in Russian), a pretty good Lurkmore article (in Russian), the classic (in Russian), this video (in Russian, a perfect primer to all four big bad words) and, should you really dig deep into the subject, this very comprehensive book. Good luck!

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  1. Valerij Tomarenko (@En_De_Ru):

    “Most of the times the obscenities are not used in their literal sense, to describe детородные органы (genitals) or половой акт (sexual intercourse). Instead, they are used for just about anything else.”

    English (or American English) isn’t that different. It’s what Tom Wolfe (“I Am Charlotte Simmons”) calls “F*** Patois”: “In F*** Patois, the word f*** was used as an interjection (“What the f***” or plain “F***,” with or without an exclamation point) expressing unhappy surprise; as a participial adjective (“f***ing guy,” “f***ing tree,” “f***ing elbows”) expressing disparagement or discontent; as an adverb modifying and intensifying an adjective (“pretty f***ing obvious”) or a verb (“I’m gonna f***ing kick his ass”); as a noun (“That stupid f***,” “don’t give a good f***”); as a verb meaning Go away (“F*** off”), beat—physically, financially, or politically (“really f***ed him over”) or beaten (“I’m f***ed”), botch (“really f***ed that up”), drunk (“You are so f***ed up”); as an imperative expressing contempt (“F*** you,” “F*** that”). Rarely—the usage had become somewhat archaic —but every now and then it referred to sexual intercourse (“He f***ed her on the carpet in front of the TV”)”.

    I cannot help comparing Russian and English to German, where genitals or sexuals intercourse are substituted by defecation (in all forms) also to be “used for just about anything else”.

    Call in the shrinks…

    • yelena:

      @Valerij Tomarenko (@En_De_Ru) Valerij, your f*** list is very thorough 🙂 I think for many Russians it’s a point of national pride, so to say, that to master curses in English you need a few hours, but to master curses in Russian takes a whole lot longer. Of course, the counter-argument would be “have you tried Shakespearean curses” although they have a very limited practical value now 🙂 Still, their sophistication makes them as difficult as трехэтажный мат.

  2. David Roberts:

    UK English isn’t that different either (but we only spell “ass” like US when referring to a horse-like animal). We can also use f*etc as an infix “nothing worth watching on telef******vison or in polite company teleb*****vision.

    I don’t know if it’s used in Russian, but in some slavonic languages there’s a very good word derived from a two letter мат word, for the sort of person who makes a meeting last twice as long as it needs to by making a fuss about every little detail: не**ена.

    • yelena:

      @David Roberts David, I think I can guess the не**ена word you mentioned. I’m not sure how often it’s used in Russian, but if someone goes to a very unproductive meeting and then is asked about his day, he might use this expression.

  3. CBS:

    Hello Yelena,

    Thanks for Your nice and elegant posting.
    I know the saying, ” Beautifull women should not say s*** “.Then they can make their choice…

    But do You think,this law is needed or usefull?Im i right,that W.P. himself threatened terrorist everywhere,even while s****ting?


    • yelena:

      @CBS Well, VVP did threaten the terrorists saying мы в сортире их замочим (we will kick their asses even in the sh**ter) however the word сортир is not a curse word or even particularly inappropriate. As for the law… do you know the Russian expression перегибать палку (to bend the stick too much)? It has the same meaning as удариться в крайности (go to the extreme). In Russia we tend to ударяться из крайности в крайность (go from one extreme to another, the opposite). Consider this article from 2004 about a competition in obscenities and graphomania that was to be held in Moscow. According to the article, one of the challenges involved writing verses on the bodies of naked women. Ironically, here’s a much more recent article about an elected official and a high-ranking member of the local government’s ethics committee arrested at a strip-club and charged with disorderly conduct and, among other things, using obscenities in public and towards police officers. The case went to court, but the judge dismissed the case since the two police officers (who later quit the force) and the elected official “came to a mutually satisfactory resolution”. As the government official said in the interview, “it was just a disagreement between the three grown men”.

  4. Valerij Tomarenko (@En_De_Ru):

    It was a quotation verbatim, Yelena. Thanks for the asterisking. I thought about it myself, but wasn’t sure since Thomas Wolfe didn’t (i.e. didn’t asterisk HIS quotations from the Patois).

    Thanks for your very entertaining postings and anecdotes. In hindsight, another one comes to mind (I’m sure you know it, there are probably many versions of this “bearded” joke): about a Russian grammar exam for future CIA spies and the proper word order of the definite (or indefinite?) article б**…

  5. David Roberts:

    Lena, I knew you’d “guess” the asterisks! I learned this expression от болгарской сотрудницы, so that must be the language where it’s commonly used.

  6. Rob:

    Молодец, Yelena! A really good article on an awkward subject, and I think NOT using the actual words teaches a very important lesson about the taboo nature of these words. I would also point out that a taboo ceases to be taboo if everyone violates it — and that if one uses curse words too casually, they lose some of their specialness. It’s like having a big chocolate birthday cake EVERY DAY of the year!

    Still, there are a few unanswered questions for me:

    (1) Is there a commonly used mild replacement for the high-frequency cussword пи**ец? In other words, something analogous to ёлки-палки and блин and хрень?

    (2) On a “dirtyness scale,” just how bad is м*дак, actually? Since it etymologically connects with детородные органы, I’ve always assumed that it must be rather strong. But can one write it without using звёздочки?

    (3) Finally — not exactly relating to Russian curses, but: what are the best equivalents to “number 1” and “number 2” if one has to describe the type of mess that the puppy left on the carpet? Or when you need to make clear why you really need to find a McDonalds with a restroom, and just stepping behind a tree isn’t an option? I’m familiar with пИсать and нагадить but I don’t know if there are better choices.

  7. Yelena:

    Rob, these are all such fun questions 🙂 Ok, in order:

    (1) Yes, you can say копец or пипец and it won’t sound terrible. In fact, growing up we used those two a lot even though we had no clue that these were euphemisms for the big bad п** word 🙂

    (2) I’d say this particular word scores an 8 out of 10 on the dirty words scale. You definitely want to stay away from using it.

    (3) Lol, I was just explaining this to my son. Yep, “number 1” is “по маленькому” and “number 2” is “по большому”. But those are usually applied to people as in Мама, мне нужно срочно по маленькому (Mama, I really need to go “number 1”). There are different expressions when you’re talking about pets. Another post, perhaps, on the practicalities of daily life?

  8. Rob:

    Yes, you can say копец or пипец and it won’t sound terrible.

    Cool! I’ve long been fond of the word пи**ец, in part because it reminds me phonetically of the Spanish curse word puñeta, which my Puerto Rican “ex” would use about 150 times during the course of a typical computer hardware upgrade. (And he was an IT geek who would do such upgrades at least once a month, so I became thoroughly familiar with that particular Spanish word, and have never forgotten it all these years later…) So it’s nice to have пипец as a mild substitute!

    Yep, “number 1″ is “по маленькому” and “number 2″ is “по большому”.

    Aha, that’s good to know!

    There are different expressions when you’re talking about pets. Another post, perhaps, on the practicalities of daily life?

    That would be most helpful! I’ve never been sure how to translate the rather peculiar — but totally normal — English sentence “The puppy went to the bathroom on the kitchen floor.”

    (And there’s a somewhat related joke: After it has been explained to a 6-year-old girl that when a lady says “I have to powder my nose,” it means she has to use the toilet, the kid informs a roomful of adult guests that her 9-year-old brother has a habit of powdering his nose in bed.)

  9. Rob:

    It’s what Tom Wolfe (“I Am Charlotte Simmons”) calls “F*** Patois”

    Of course, in Russian, it’s the word for the male genitalia, and not the word for copulation, that plays this versatile role (which is why Yelena noted that the “three-letter word… is the most widely used obscene word in the Russian language”).

  10. Rob:

    UK English isn’t that different either (but we only spell “ass” like US when referring to a horse-like animal).

    From what I understand, the word “donkey” with the meaning осёл is of rather recent origin (circa 1750-1800), and only started to gain in popularity as the pronunciations of “ass” and “arse” began to converge in the North American dialects of English. In other words, when preachers and Sunday School teachers noticed that references to “Balaam’s ass” made children giggle, they began to substitute the previously obscure word “donkey.” (Which may have originally been a nickname for “Duncan.”)

    Similarly, “rooster” in the specific sense of петух is possibly less than 300 years old, and only became popularized after the word “cock” developed an embarrassing new slang sense in the 18th century.

  11. Lee Redeker:

    this is great you son of bitch