Russian Language Blog

How to Say “Default” in Russian Posted by on Jul 30, 2011 in language, Russian for beginners

Have you ever wished for a time machine? What would you use «машина времени» for if you did have it? The protagonists of Soviet «научная фантастика» [science fiction] were always using time machines for various noble deeds, such as dinosaur research or, say, trying to save «одно из семи чудес света» [one of the seven wonders of the world]. Such «наивные паиньки» [naïve goody two shoes] these idealistic heroes were!

That’s why I immediately fell in love with «Назад в будущее» [Back to the Future] and all its sequels. I mean, here were folks using a time machine for their private, practical goals. And while the goals weren’t always perfect or even very ethical, they were realistic and refreshing.

All this goes to say that if I were to have a time machine, I would had used it to find out «что день грядущий мне готовит» [what tomorrow holds for me] and place my bets accordingly.

Like I wouldn’t even worry about travelling «в далёкое будущее» [to the distant future]. Instead, if I were to get a hold of «машина времени» today, I’d go to «2 августа этого года» [August 2nd of this year].

That’s the day when we’ll know for sure whether the US will default on its foreign debt, an event that, if it happens, will have tremendous impact on economies around the world.

Now, before I go any further, this is not a blog about politics or economics. This is a post about Russia and all things Russian. So while I can’t change the big picture, I can at least «использовать эту возможность» [use the opportunity] to go over some vocabulary.

You might remember that Russia went through its own «дефолт» [default] back in 1998. That’s actually the year the word itself entered everyday Russian conversations. Another way to translate “default” is «отказ от уплаты долга» [refusal to pay off debt] or «нарушение обязательств по выплате долга» [breach of obligations on debt repayment].

Moving on to the verb “to default”, things get a bit muddier. Here’s an example: «российский дефолт был объявлен в августе 1998-го года» [Russia defaulted in August of 1998].

“To default” can be translated as «объявить дефолт» or «прекратить выплату долговых обязательств» [stop repayment of debt] or «отказаться от выплаты долга» [refuse to repay debt]. And that’s how «пресса» [print media] reports it. But on the Internet, in chat rooms and forums, a word «дефолтнуть» has started to appear, meaning “to send into a default”.

The verb «дефолтнуть» is pretty interesting mostly because it is formed with a suffix «-ну-». Lots of Russian verbs use this suffix, but they can be categorized into 2 very different groups.

In the first category are verbs such as «гибнуть» [to perish], «мокнуть» [to become wet], «крепнуть» [to gain strength], «мёрзнуть» [to get cold], «слепнуть» [to lose eyesight], «вянуть» [to wither]. These verbs have corresponding adjectives and in general indicate a process of undergoing some sort of change.


Adjective -ну- Verb Sentence
Гиблый Гибнуть Коралловые рифы гибнут по всему миру. [All around the world, coral riffs are dying.]
Мокрый Мокнуть Пустынные аллеи мокнут под дождём [Deserted avenues are getting wet in the rain]
Мёрзлый Мёрзнуть Если у тебя мёрзнут ноги, одень тёплые носки [If your feet are cold, put on warm socks]
Слепой Слепнуть Продолжайте это делать и вы будете слепнуть [Continue doing this and you will be going blind]
Вялый Вянуть Почему цветы вянут, если их не поливать [Why flowers wither without watering]

In the second category are the verbs such as «прыгнуть» [to jump], «отдохнуть» [to rest], «стукнуть» [to hit], «глянуть» [to look], «зевнуть» [to yawn]. These verbs are perfective, formed from other verbs, and denote non-recurring or instantaneous actions.


Verb -ну- Verb Sentence
Прыгать Прыгнуть Кот прыгнул и поймал кузнечика. [The cat jumped and caught a grasshopper]
Отдыхать Отдохнуть Вернусь из коммандировки и отдохну по полной программе [I’ll rest for real after I get back from a business trip]
Глядеть Глянуть Глянул я в зеркало, а на меня оттуда морда небритая таращится [I took a look in the mirror; an unshaven mug stared back at me]
Зевать Зевнуть Что будет если чихнуть, кашлянуть и зевнуть одновременно? [What happens if you sneeze, cough, and yawn all at once?]

Even though «дефолтнуть» is not formed from a verb, it does carry the sense of non-recurring action. It is also a transitive verb, so an object this verb acts on will be in the accusative case as in «Грецию могут дефолтнуть» [Greece might be sent into a default].

Here’s something else super-interesting and special about the suffix «-ну-». Every Russian elementary school student knows that “All Russian words have «корень» [a root]”. That’s the rule. Of course, «нет правил без исключений» [there are no rules without exceptions]. Same here – in the whole Russian language there is ONE word that doesn’t have a root. It only has a prefix and 2 suffixes. One of these suffixes is «-ну-». Can you name the word?

As for default, I don’t have much else to say, except to post a list of words that just might come in handy come August 2nd:

«экономический кризис» – economic crisis

«мировой финансовый кризис» – world financial crisis

«подрыв доверия» – erosion of credibility

«падение уровня жизни» – drop in the living standards

«потолок госдолга» also «планка госдолга» – government debt ceiling

«резкое падение» – sharp fall, collapse

«крах» – crash

As for the dream of a time machine, it looks like the classic said it all:

Что день грядущий мне готовит?

Его мой взор напрасно ловит,
В глубокой мгле таится он.
Нет нужды; прав судьбы закон.


[This day to come, what will it bring?

My eyes in vain seek out the thing

That’s veiled in deepest mystery.

No matter: a just fate awaits me.]

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  1. Greg:

    So how do you say “by default,” as in:

    – Would you rather watch CSI New York or CSI Miami?

    – CSI New York by default. I hate CSI Miami.


    • yelena:

      @Greg Greg, that’s a great question. “By default” can be translated as “по умолчанию” or “в отсутствии других предложений”, but that’s a bit formal. In the example you suggested, I’d use “скорее CSI New York, я терпеть не могу CSI Miami”.

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  3. Aurea Freniere:

    Great post, as usual 😀 . However I would like to point out something about the feed (I’m sorry if this is the wrong place, I did not find any other way to contact you). One thing I found great of being subscribed to this wonderful blog, was that I could recieve all the entries in my email and read them on my iphone no matter where I was (which was awesome as I’m studying Russian and it’s always nice to be in touch with the Russian language wherever I go.),especially since I’m not always in front of the computer.
    For the past three feeds I had to click on the subject title to read the whole entry, which somehow cancels the whole point of being subscribed to the feed 😛 Really, don’t get me wrong, the blog is AWESOME and that’s I’m begging you *please*, I don’t know what it was that you had enabled on the feed system, but I would LOVE to have it back so that I can read it directly on my email, rather than on firefox. And of course keep the good work!

    • yelena:

      @Aurea Freniere Hi Aurea, I’ve seen the change, but didn’t pay much attention to it (since I already know the content of the posts, lol). You’re bringing up a very good point and I sent your e-mail to the folks at Transparent who are in charge of all the technical things on this blog. Thank you for the kind words about the blog posts 🙂 Is there anything in particular you’d like us to write about?

  4. shruti:

    All yr posts are very informative, love it:)

  5. Rob McGee:

    “By default” can be translated as “по умолчанию”

    Hmmm. по умолчанию literally means something like “given the silence” — i.e., “in the absence of votes for something different”. So that’s actually a pretty good translation for what “by default” often means — the “automatic choice” when no one has a preference for a different choice.

  6. Rob McGee:

    By the way, I’m surprised no one commented on the author of that science-fiction book in the picture: Герберт Уеллс.

    In English, he is without exception called “H.G. Wells” — and I’ll bet if you did a poll of 100 well-educated English speakers who are familiar with Wells’ books, 80% could not tell you that the “H.G.” stands for “Herbert George.”

    Similarly, we have P.G. Wodehouse (в России, “Пэлем Вудхаус”) and C.S. Lewis (“Клайв Льюис”), whose first and middle names are rarely used in English, and who are much better known by their initials.

    (On the other hand, “O. Henry” is known as “О. Генри” in Russian — but “O. Henry” was only a pseudonym for William Sydney Porter.)