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Russian Phraseology: Nose Posted by on Apr 9, 2008 in Culture, language, Literature

Even long before the main hero of Nikolaj Gogol’s [Николай Гоголь] short story «Нос» [“The Nose”] met his own nose on Nevsky Prospect dressed as a general, the nose had a special place in Russian culture and language. A couple of days ago I was reading my favorite Russian weekly newspaper and came across an interview with Hungarian writer Peter Esterhazy, in which he (partially) answers the last question, «А для вас что значит Россия?» [“And what does Russia mean to you?”], with the following words: «…но ведь я не знаю, что такое жить здесь и быть интеллигентом. Каково здесь писать. Как вообще писать на русском. Как можно написать фразу после Гоголя» [“…but I don’t know what it’s like to live here and be an intellectual. How it is to write here. What it is like at all to write in Russian. How it is possible to write a sentence after Gogol”]. At first this comment unsettled to me, since it seemed to me a little bit too categorical, but then I remember his wonderfully grotesque and beautifully strange “Nose” and yes, I had to agree. Though amazing and pioneering as this little novella is (it was one of the first pieces of Russian literature I ever read in my life, I think I was sixteen at the time and I loved it straight away) that is not what I had intended to linger on today. I advice everyone who hasn’t read it to read, and to those who have read it to remember it from time to time and, if time allows, to reread it someday. Today I’m going to talk about Russian phraseology again, and this time about the nose, нос (2nd loc. носу; pl. носы)


Two gentlemen standing by the open-air book store close to Исеть пруд perhaps not discussing литература but the wonderful spring погода.

When something is really, really close, both in time and space, Russians will often use the expression «на носу», which literally means “on the nose”, but has the meaning ‘near at hand; just around the corner’. Every city has its special quirks, in Yekaterinburg people always ask for directions; some because it’s their first time in the capitol of the Urals, others because it is the town tradition to always ask someone how to get from A to B even if you’re only just the slightest bit unsure. For example, here this expression can be used in the following way: «Вы не могли бы мне сказать, где находится главпочтамт у вас?» [“Couldn’t you tell me where the main post office is located in your town?”] «Да он на носу, совсем рядышком!» [“Oh it is right around the corner, you’re almost there!”] On Friday afternoon one way of using the expression can be to walk around the office with a big smile on your lips as you say: «Выходные на носу!» [“The weekend is almost here!”] When speaking of something else that is close, but more of an object and therefore often in another context, you could use the expression «под (самым) носом; под носом» which can be neatly translated into English as ‘under one’s very nose’. For example: «Знаешь, я очень долгое время искал себе женщину, но не мог её найти, и оказалось она всё время была практически под моим носом!» [“You know, I was looking for a woman for a very long time but couldn’t find her, and then it turned out that she was practically right under my nose the whole time!”] «Что ты имеешь в виду?» [“What do you mean?”] «Да, мы с ней живём в одном доме, едем на работу на одном автобусе, работаем в одной и той же фирме, обедаем в одной столовой, просто до недавного времени никогда не замечали друг друга…» [“Well, we live in the same house, go to work with the same bus, work in one and the same firm, have lunch in the same cafeteria, just that up until recently we never noticed each other…”].

There is also a lovely adjective derived from this substantive which is used to describe a person with a long or big nose: носатый (с большим носом, с длинным носом). In general I like noses. I love unusual noses, I think they give character. Russians tend to have good noses, and often big noses, always beautiful noses. I suppose it is because I myself happen to have a tiny and not very distinctive nose that I so much like to see unique noses on other people.

Водить за нос – to lead (someone) on; string (someone) along; take in
Из-под самого носа – from under one’s very nose
На носу – near at hand; just around the corner
Под нос – under one’s breath
под (самым) носом; под носом – under one’s very nose
Оставить с носом – to leave (someone) holding the bag
Остаться с носом – to be left holding the bag
С носа; с носу – apiece; a head

«Держать нос по ветру»!

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  1. john jaklich:

    Enjoyed your blog very much. You wrote clearly and made it very rewarding for me. I study Russian and prefer not to have to look up every word to understand what the blog is about. You did a great job presenting the blog. Now I have something I can use someday.

  2. Stas:

    No Russian native speaker would say it like this, «Вы не могли бы мне сказать, где находится главпочтамт у вас?». The right way is Вы не могли бы мне сказать, гду у вас находится главпочтамт? I don’t know why – it’s just customary.

    “Водить за нос – to lead (someone) on; string (someone) along; take in” – you give just a literal translation. It’s an idiomatic expression and it means to cheat, to lie. And usually for quite some time.

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