Russian Language Blog

Three Whales and Other Russian Phrases for Counting to Ten Posted by on Mar 13, 2013 in Culture, language

I am trying to figure out a way to talk about the три кита русского мата (the three whales of the Russian obscenity) without crossing the line yet without having to use so many *** that it makes the post unreadable. If you have any ideas on how to do this, let me know. In the meantime, let’s talk about these “three whales”. By the way, they were first mentioned by Rob in his comment on the previous post.

While the expression три кита might seem puzzling, it is actually a very common one. It means “the three pillars”:

Три кита музыки – это песня, танец и марш (The three pillars of music are song, dance and march).

But why киты (whales) and not, say, слоны (elephants)? And why три (three) and not один (one) or пять (five)?

To answer this question and to practice Russian comprehension skills, here’s the explanation:

В давние времена люди думали, что Земля – плоская, как блин, и поддерживается на спинах трёх больших рыб. Так как в те времена ещё не знали, что кит – млекопитающее, то китов считали самыми большими рыбами. Люди верили, что три кита удерживают на себе Землю.

(Run this paragraph through Google Translate if you’d like to check your comprehension).

So I thought, using the whales as an example, why not count to 10 using Russian phrases with numbers in them:

1 – Один

Одна нога тут, другая – там (One leg here, the other one – there) – this might sound like a phrase out of a particularly gruesome episode of CSI, but its meaning is absolutely benign. It simply means to get something done in a jiffy, on a double:

Сбегай за пивом, только быстро, одна нога здесь, другая – там (Run and fetch beer, but make it quick).

2 – Два

На два фронта (On two fronts) – you are as likely to come across this phrase in history books as in everyday speech as in

Оказывается, мой бывший встречался ещё с одной женщиной, такая вот любовь на два фронта – Turns out, my ex was seeing someone else, love on two fronts so to speak.

While in the above sentence the meaning of “на два фронта” is clearly “two-timing”, in general the phrase is used to describe a situation when efforts and resources are split between two goals.

3 – Три

Три кита – see above. Can you name the Three Whales of the Marxism-Leninism from the image at the top of the post?

4 – Четыре

В четырёх стенах (Between four walls) – someone who живёт в четырёх стенах (lives between four walls) is someone who rarely or never goes outside. You can use this phrase to prod your Wii-addicted spouse to go for some Italian:

Дорогой, что мы всё в четырёх стенах, может сходим в ресторан? (Darling, why do we always stay home; how about going out to a restaurant?)

If this fails, guilt trip him with Я для тебя просто сфера услуг в четырёх стенах! (I am just an in-house services provider for you!)

Or you can complain about your cabin fever:

Я больше не могу сидеть в четырёх стенах! (I can no longer stay indoors!)

5 – Пять

Пятое колесо (the fifth wheel) has the same exact meaning in Russian as it does in English. So let’s use пятый угол (the fifth corner) instead. Here’s some geometry – a four-walled room (from the sentences above) has four corners. If you are looking for the fifth corner, it means you are working really hard looking for a place to hide or for an escape route.

Мой пёс боится грома. Каждый раз во время грозы он ищет пятый угол. (My dog is scared of thunder. Every time during a thunderstorm he is trying really hard to hide.)

6 – Шесть

Шесть досок (Six boards) – what can you make with six boards? Yep, a box. What kind of a box? How about the kind that is put six feet under.

7 – Семь

Семь пятниц (Seven Fridays) – do you have a flaky friend, the one who promises to go to a club with you, but calls you at the last moment to say something came up? Or maybe you are the one who can never make up your mind about where to go for your vacation. Or maybe you’ve heard a politician to flip-flop on a particularly important issue? That’s exactly what семь пятниц на неделе (seven Fridays in a week) means – to act flaky, to flip-flop, to change one’s mind in a way that’s irritating or upsetting to others:

Мой друг – человек необязательный. У него вечно семь пятниц на неделе. (My friend is flaky. He always changes his mind about things.)

8 – Восемь

Do you know any phrases that have восемь in them? I don’t. And Восьмое марта (March 8th, the International Women’s Day) doesn’t count for this game. Although, if nothing else, this will do or as we say на безрыбье и рак рыба (something is better than nothing; lit: when there’s no fish, crayfish will count as fish). Besides, crayfish has 8 walking legs. So there!

9 – Девять

Тридевятое царство (The thrice ninth kingdom) – A mythical kingdom of Russian fairy tales, it is also known as тридесятое государство (the thrice tenth state). So basically, it’s a far-away land where math works differently, I s’pose since 3×9=27, but 3×10=30, so how can these two be the same place?

10 – Десять

Десятая вода на киселе (The tenth water of kissel) – ok, so kissel is a type of thick drink of sweet juice and starch. And the entire phrase means “forty-second cousin” or someone who’s a very-very-very distant relative, perhaps not even a relative at all:

Мой дядя Ваня – не самых честных правил, да и вообще он мне не дядя, а так, десятая вода на киселе. (My uncle Ivan is not of the high ideals, and he is not even my uncle, but some forty-second cousin of mine or something.)

Some might argue that it should be седьмая вода на киселе or девятая вода на киселе, or even двенадцатая вода на киселе, but all the versions are equally valid and are in use.

Now is your turn to look for Russian expressions with numbers in them. Can’t think of any? Think of some in your language and find out how to translate them into Russian.

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  1. mike:

    What fun, Yelena! You have me looking for eight in the fifth corner. If you open up a second front I’ll be ready for either the six boards or a happy ending in the thrice nine kingdom.

    • yelena:

      @mike Mike, I’m going like the teacher in “A Christmas Story”: A++++++++!

  2. Delia Valente:

    How about восьмое чудо света? It’s more international than Russian but we still use it. I am with седьмая вода на киселе 🙂
    Два тополя на Плющихе from the famous movie
    Один в поле не воин
    Семь раз отмерь, один раз отрежь

    • yelena:

      @Delia Valente Delia, how could I forget about восьмое чудо света! Thank you for continuing to read and comment. It’s always such a pleasure to hear from you!

  3. Rob:

    Another one with “7”: У семи нянек дитя без глазу. — “When there are seven nannies, the child is unsupervised.” Or, in other words, too many cooks spoil the broth.

    (без глазу, literally “without an eye”, really means “without supervision.” And note that it’s another example of that semi-archaic -у/-ю genitive singular that still exists for certain masculine nouns)

  4. CBS:

    Hello yelena!

    Thanks for Your nice posts!
    The three whales of M.L. are Karl Marx,Friedrich Engels and Wladimir Iljitsch Lenin.


    • yelena:

      @CBS Right on, Christian!

  5. mike:

    I just found another number to be:

    трудиться до седьмого/четвёртого пота

    Is this for real?

    (Oxford Russian Dictionary)

  6. yelena:

    Great find, Mike! Yes, трудиться до седьмого поту is just a way of saying “to work very hard”. The word трудиться is frequently replaced with вкалывать so you get вкалывать до седьмого поту, but the meaning is the same – to work very hard.