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Speak of the Devil — Idioms With Чёрт in Russian Posted by on Oct 12, 2015 in language

 

In the month of October, much of the United States (and other Anglophone countries, I imagine) is getting ready to celebrate Halloween. Some of you may know that this holiday is not universally celebrated in Russia and has even caused some controversy. There used to be a different occasion for dressing up and role-playing — a Christmas Eve tradition called kolyada (коляда́). However, since this is no longer really practiced, Halloween is the only chance Russians get to play dress-up.

In any event, for our Halloween post this year, why don’t we take a look at some idioms with “devilish” vocabulary in Russian? The first word you need to know is “чёрт” (the devil). There are numerous expressions with чёрт. They are fairly colloquial and probably aren’t something you want to say to your boss or teacher; however, they are not vulgar and are used quite often. In my personal experience, чёрт isn’t widely seen as offensive as, say, the word “hell” can be in English.

К чёрту – “To the devil,” used either to express that you give up on something or someone and come what may; or as an intensifier (compare it to the English “in the world” as in “what in the world?”)

― Ну́ его к чёрту, стуча́ть ― после́днее де́ло. (To hell with it; snitching is the lowest thing.) [Василий Гроссман. Жизнь и судьба, ч. 1 (1960)]

― А а́збуку Мо́рзе ты зна́ешь? ― Кака́я, к че́рту, а́збука! (“Do you know the Morse code, too?” “What code on earth are you talking about?”) [Мариам Петросян. Дом, в котором… (2009)]

До чёртиков – to the extreme degree; one typical collocation is напи́ться до чёртиков (to drink your face off)

Меня́ несе́т, я кричу́, что так и не смогла́ напи́ться до че́ртиков[…] (I am carried away, I’m screaming that I haven’t been able to get wasted[…]) [Гала Рудых. Такой устойчивый мир // «Октябрь», 2002]

Чёрт побери́ – either an exclamation of anger/frustration or an intensifier

А я не понима́ю, черт побери́, ничего́! (I don’t understand a darn thing.) [Елена Негода. Россия (2003) // «Лебедь» (Бостон), 2003.07.14]

Как чёрт из табаке́рки – used to talk about someone appearing suddenly; this is a reference to a jack-in-the-box type toy

Куда ни ки́нешь глаз, но́вые зда́ния выска́кивают как черт из табаке́рки. (Wherever you look, new buildings pop up overnight.) [Юлия Вишневецкая, Зоя Харитонова. Над пропастью в Москве // «Русский репортер», № 45 (173), 18 ноября 2010, 2010]

Чёрт ногу сломит – something’s a mess; literally, “the devil will break his leg”

В бума́гах э́тих сам черт но́гу сло́мит. (I can’t make heads or tails of these papers.) [Андрей Житков. Супермаркет (2000)]

У чёрта на кули́чках/на рога́х – really far away

Лека́рство оказа́лось в како́й-то апте́ке, находя́щейся у че́рта на кули́чках. (The medication was found in some pharmacy in the middle of nowhere.) [Вадим Сидур. Памятник современному состоянию (1973-1974)]

В ти́хом о́муте че́рти во́дятся – still waters run deep, said about a shy/inconspicuous person who hides something beneath the façade.

Е́здят америка́нцы, в о́бщем, аккура́тно. Но в ти́хом о́муте че́рти во́дятся. (Americans are generally careful drivers, but appearances can be deceiving.) [Владимир Гаврилов. Идеальный паркетник (2010.11.11) // http://www.rbcdaily.ru/2010/11/11/cnews/526266.shtml, 2010]

This was a cursory overview of idioms with чёрт. There are several others including было бы боло́то, а че́рти найду́тся and не так стра́шен черт, как его малю́ют — look them up! Is there anything else you’d like to add to the list?

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About the Author: Maria

Maria is a Russian-born translator from Western New York. She is excited to share her fascination with all things Russian on this blog. Maria's professional updates are available in English on her website and Twitter and in Russian on Telegram.


Comments:

  1. Steve:

    I find these variations of your first time to be colorful:

    к чертовой матери

    and

    к чертовой бабушке

    I never knew the Devil had a mother, much less a grandmother.

    • Maria:

      @Steve Steve, it is quite amusing when you think about it. I had a classmate who would say “к чертям свинячим.” I’m pretty sure the (more) conventional saying goes “К чертям собачим,” but his variant is quite expressive in its absurdity.

  2. Peter Luther:

    “К чёрту” Russian people say usually in a farewell, like “Счастливого пути” they ansered “К чёрту”. Like in the German “Hals-und Beinbruch”.

    • Maria:

      @Peter Luther Peter, that’s a good observation. In my family, people would answer “Ни пуха ни пера” (“Break a leg”) with “К чёрту, к чёрту!” I have never heard other families double the response, so it may be an individual preference.

  3. Richard:

    A very interesting post, Maria, thanks!

    I’ve finished reading “War and Peace” and am still digesting it. One thing I found very interesting was the episode in which the younger Rostovs go mummering just before Christmas. I found this interesting because out in Newfoundland mummers are still popular; the custom was brought to Newfoundland from England and Ireland. Yet here I find the Russians doing the same thing! It made me smile because I thought to myself that Westerners and Russians have more in common than we think. 🙂

    Коляда doesn’t seem to be quite the same as mummering but I’m very curious as to why Tolstoy included the mummering episode in “War and Peace”. Did he mean коляда or a different custom?

    As both Hallowe’en and Christmas draw nearer it makes for an interesting cultural topic.

    Here’s a link about mummering in Newfoundland:
    http://mummersfestival.ca/home/?q=node/2

    • Maria:

      @Richard Thank you, Richard. If I remember correctly, War and Peace talks about mummering for Svyatki (https://ru.wikipedia.org/wiki/%D0%A1%D0%B2%D1%8F%D1%82%D0%BA%D0%B8), an originally pagan celebration of the transition into the new year that later merged with Christian celebrations and was held between Orthodox Christmas and Epiphany. Unfortunately, this has largely been lost in today’s Russia.
      Very interesting about Newfoundland. It amazes me where these traditions from the “old country” take hold.