Russian Language Blog

One Hard-Working Russian Word Posted by on Oct 18, 2011 in Culture, language, Russian for beginners

Do you know that in Russia the expression “birthday suit” translates as «костюм Адама»  if talking about a male and «костюм Евы» if talking about a woman. But «фиговый листок» means exactly the same thing, a fig leaf, in its proverbial sense. Just be careful with the stress or you end up saying “worthless leaf” which, come to think of it, is exactly what this proverbial leaf was.

I know, I know, I am expected to write a post about Russian curse words. I do have a couple of really good excuses for not having it ready just yet. But it is in the works. In the mean time, consider this an introduction into the world of Russian words not usually found in textbooks.

The words «фиг» and «фига», in their meaning of “the bird” aka “the highway salute” aka “the finger” aka “f***k off” gave rise to countless words and expressions that are, in themselves, a study in the richness, complexity and flexibility of the Russian language.

At a glance these words seem to be related to a fig tree. If that was the case, «фиговое дерево» [fig tree], and not birch, would be a Russian national tree (on the basis of linguistic influence). However, it doesn’t seem to be related to the words I’m going to talk about. Besides, «фиговое дерево» is not even the most popular translation. Instead, it is «инжир» or «смоква». Note the stress is on the first vowel. But more on this in just a little bit.

As for the «показать фигу» [to flip a finger] gesture, it’s not done using just the middle finger. Instead, the whole hand is made into a fist with the thumb tucked in between the pointing finger and the middle finger. Would it surprise you to learn that this gesture has more than one name – «фига», «кукиш», «дуля», and «шиш».

The expression «фиг тебе» really means “you won’t get anything from me”. So it’s not nearly as obscene as “f***k off” translation that it sometimes gets. The gesture and the words, although not nice, are mild enough to be used even by women and children such as in phrases:

«Смотришь в книгу, видишь фигу» [Looking at the book and seeing nothing] – an expression favored by teachers and mothers.

«Фигу тебе с маслом!» [lit. You get a nothing with butter on it] – innocent enough that elementary school-aged children use it freely.

«Иди на фиг!» [Go to hell!] – acceptable even around youngsters, although not exactly the best way to handle things.

But let’s move on from the basics to some more advanced words. One of the most useful words in Russian language is «фигня» which can mean a nothing, a trifle, nonsense, stuff and a range of other things.

An amusing article with a title «Фигня как социальное явление» [Фигня as a social phenomenon] classifies «фигня» into two broad categories of «абстрактная» [here: transcendental] and «конкретная» [specific].

So basically, you can use this one word to describe pretty much everything going on around you or with you. In fact, have you ever read a book “Don’t Sweat the Small Stuff – and it’s all small stuff”? I think, if it ever were to print in Russian, a perfect title would be «Не страдай фигнёй; а кстати, всё – фигня».

This brings us to two popular phrases in the “verb + «фигня»” format:

«Страдать фигнёй» also «маяться фигнёй» also «заниматься фигнёй» – to waste time doing something or obsessing over something that’s small, meaningless, useless, etc. Also, to procrastinate as in «С понедельника перестаю страдать фигнёй и начинаю искать работу» [On Monday, I will stop procrastinating and will start looking for a job]

«Пороть фигню» – to talk nonsense as in «От стеснения он сбился с мысли и начал пороть фигню» [He felt so ill at ease, that he lost his thought and started talking nonsense]

But let’s move on to bigger and more complicated words. The noun «фигня» can be used to create all sorts of fantastic and highly useful words, such as

«Фиговина» [a thing, an object] – if you find yourself in an informal setting and desperate to remember a Russian word for some (any) object, you can use this word instead. For example, «Саша, ты вчера эту фиговину искал?» [Sasha, were you looking for this thing yesterday?]

«Фиговый» [worthless, rotten] – stress is the key here. When «и» is stressed, the adjective has a meaning of “of a fig tree”. When «о» is stressed, the meaning changes dramatically – «фиговая жизнь» [lousy life], «фиговое качество» [poor quality], «фиговый помошник» [worthless helper].

«Офигеть» [to flip over, to freak] – this verb can also be used as an exclamation. The emotions covered by «офигеть» can be either positive or negative.

  • «Я офигел, когда официантка принесла счёт» [I freaked out when the waitress brought over the check].
  • «Концерт был – офигеть!» [The show was awesome!]
  • «Офигеть как холодно!» [It’s freakishly cold!]

«Офигенный» [unbelievable] – do not confuse with «фиговый» (bad) since «офигенный» is usually a good thing, except when it’s not.

  • «Концерт был просто офигенный» [The show was simply unbelievable].
  • «За билетами на концерт была офигенная очередь» [The line for the tickets to the show was unbelievable]

Пофиг» also «пофигу» [screw it] – when you just don’t care about something. For example, «мне обычно эти концерты вообще пофигу» [usually I don’t care a bit about these shows].

«Пофигист» – if you are a laid-back person who doesn’t really care about too many things or doesn’t react strongly to much; if you tend to say “screw it” and “whatever” to pretty much whatever, this is a good descriptive for you.

«Фигово» [crappy] – oh, this can be used in so many ways to describe conditions of various objects, as in «сделано фигово» [of inferior workmanship] and persons, i.e. «на душе фигово» [feeling blue] as well as global phenomena «на Ближнем Востоке сейчас фигово, что и говорить» [it goes without saying, the situation in the Middle East is discouraging].

How socially appropriate are these words and phrases? They are inoffensive (usually) in informal conversations with people you know well. However, keep in mind that «фигня» is really a euphemism for a much stronger-flavored word familiar to Russians «от мала до велика» [young and old], the one that is not fit to print or say «в приличном обществе» [in a polite company].

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  1. Richard:

    “Фиговина” seems like a very useful word. I’m always impressed with the flexibility of Russian; the ability to take one small word and use it to create new words.

    Now if we can just get past the straight-laced hooey and post about the really juicy swear words! 😉

    • yelena:

      @Richard Lol, Richard, actually, the main reason I haven’t yet posted about the swear words is not at all because of being prim and proper. It’s way funnier than that, but I’ll explain all about it in the post itself 🙂

  2. Richard:

    Sounds good Yelena! A little hooey or хуй, two different meanings but the same pronunciation, makes the world go round…

  3. Rob McGee:

    Офигенная статья! I would suggest that an excellent translation for офигенный in some contexts would be various English words with the “infix” -freaking-, as in “fan-freakin’-tastic” or “un-freaking-believable”. Note that “freaking” is a euphemism here for the obvious F-word in English, and thus conveys the semi-euphemistic quality of фиг.

    Incidentally, as far as I know, “freaking” in this sense was originally a euphemistic mispronunciation of “frig” (дрочать, “to wank; to jack off”), which was in turn a euphemistic replacement for you-know-what. So “freaking” in this particular context is kind of a euphemism-squared!

  4. Minority:

    “Фиговина” may also be “фигня”, “фигнюшка”, “фигнюшечка” and so on, it only depends on how big thing фиговина is or how do you like it. =)

    I’d add a word “хрень” to this list too. We use it in a similar situations.)
    By the way, there is a fun video about this word:

  5. Bob:

    ROFL! I’ve always told people (half-jokingly) that no language is worth learning unless you can swear in it.

    In my collection, I have a book called “Dermo!” which I refer to as the “Encyclopedia Profanica” 🙂 On the one hand, I can’t believe the huge quantity of words in this book. On the other, considering how many verbs Russians use to say “to go”, it makes perfect sense.

  6. Rob McGee:

    I can’t believe the huge quantity of words in this book

    But note that if you ask a native answer “how many мат words are there in Russian,” the answer will typically be something like “Three, I guess — maybe as many as five or six.” (The number would depend on whether you want to count such words as бл— and му– in the “true мат” category.) But on the other hand, the title of the book “Dermo!” is definitely not мат (“a really heavy-duty obscenity”) by Russian standards, but merely sounds rather пошлый (vulgar, tacky, low-brow).

    Which is to say that the vast majority of words in a “Russian Profanity Dictionary” are going to be derivatives of a few basic roots created by turning an obscene noun into a verb and then attaching prefixes.

  7. Keith Wilson:

    ‘I dont give a fig’ is a common British expression – or was – I haven’t heard it recently!

  8. Rob McGee:

    “keep in mind that «фигня» is really a euphemism for a much stronger-flavored word familiar to Russians”

    And be sure NOT to get фигня confused with another word that ends in -ня but starts with a different letter. Especially don’t confuse them IN RUSSIAN CLASS, as I did many years ago! (Our teacher was explaining the word фигня, which was in one of our reading texts, and I had heard the OTHER word from a Russian friend my own age. And the really bad word just popped out of my mouth, since it can have the same basic meaning of “nonsense” that фигня does.)

  9. Richard:


    Я наблюдал видео несколько раз, но я все еще не понимаю слово “хрень”!



  10. Rob McGee:

    Richard — вот хрен, в дословном смысле. From the (very typical) shape of the horseradish root, you can probably guess what it’s a euphemism for! And since the “real” х-word can in some contexts mean “nonsense; worthless thing” (or “f*cking bullsh*t”), хрен can have that meaning too, as in the video. I’m not sure what the rules are for using the spelling with the ь at the end. But the youtube comments for the video mention that it’s a parody of some documentary film called плесень (“mold”, in the sense of the fuzzy green fungus), so the spelling хрень plays on that, I guess.

  11. Rob McGee:

    Also, check out this clock with the three times of day: инь, янь, and хрень — Loosely, “Male Principle”, “Female Principle”, and “BS Principle,” I suppose.

  12. Rob McGee:

    I guess you could translate that clock as “Yin – Yang – Dong”, but the problem is that “dong” perfectly conveys the phallic sense of хрень, but not the “bullcrap” sense.

  13. Rob McGee:

    Also — after thinking about it some more — хрень in the context of that video could be translated as “junk”, in the colloquial sense of “things without any genuine value” (including very expensive trash that people buy just because it’s fashionable, like a lot of modern art).

    And in recent years, “junk” has also become a slang term for the male genitalia, which is the same meaning that хрен can have in some contexts (without the ь).

  14. Richard:


    Thanks for the explanation! LOL I did look up “хрен” and got “horseradish”. Problem is, when I think of horseradish I think of the little jars that we buy in the grocery store.

    The video is definitely a parody of something (or everything), but I have problems keeping up with the narrator.
    I’m also curious about the reason for the “ь” at the end.

    The clock: maybe it means that yin and yang (female and male) work during the day and come together at night to complete each other, the clock just represents the yin-yang concept with a sense of humour. If I were to market that clock in English I’d just go with “Ding, Dang, Dong”, with apologies to Frère Jacques.

    I’m afraid this blog is no longer “family friendly”, oh well, I never was much for Political Correctness. 8-D

  15. Minority:

    “Хрень” is very similar to “херня” (and it’s made of “хер”). But “хрень” sounds much more mild with the help of “ь” in the end. =)

  16. Rob McGee:

    (and it’s made of “хер”)

    Wait, minority, do you mean to say that хрень actually comes from херня, and not from хрен? That’s interesting.

    If I’m not mistaken, хер was originally the name used for the Russian letter Хх when reciting the alphabet, but it came to be used as a semi-euphemistic-but-still-dirty synonym for you-know-what.

    At least partly for this reason, when the Harry Potter books were translated into Russian, “Hogwarts” became Хогварц and Hagrid became Хагрид, but it was totally out of the question to turn Hermione into Хермионе, because to Russians it would have sounded a bit like saying “Queen Dick-toria”! (Instead, she became Гермионя, a name that had precedent in Russian translations of Homer’s Iliad.)

  17. Minority:

    I don’t know acually what it was made from, I told these words sound similar to each other.

    And it’s hard to say about names.. There’re a lot of names from H we start from Г.

    Harry => Гарри
    Hermione => Гермиона
    Henry => Генри
    Howard => Говард
    Harold => Гарольд
    Hamilton => Гамильтон
    Hamlet => Гамлет
    Hector => Гектор
    Henrietta => Генриетта
    Herbert => Герберт
    Homer => Гомер
    Horace/Horatio => Горацио

    As you can see, most of these names wouldn’t sound rude with Х instead of Г, but we use Г. May be it depends on how you pronounce the “h” letter in these names in English.