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To Each Vegetable Its Own… Phrase Posted by on May 14, 2012 in Culture, language, Russian food

There is a wonderful Russian saying всякому овощу своё время (there’s time for everything). But as it turns out, всякому овощу, фрукту и ягоде – своё красное словцо (to each vegetable, fruit or berry its own witticism).

Картофель (potato) is a relative newcomer to Russia, appearing only in Peter the Great’s reign. Much like in other European countries, it took potato a while to overcome initial fear and accusations of being дьявольский фрукт (devil’s fruit). Yet less than 300 years later potatoes are firmly associated with Russia and have become a staple воспеваемый (rhapsodized) in songs and poems and remembered in many пословицы (proverbs) and поговорки (sayings), including

Любовь не картошка, не выкинешь в окошко – literally, love is not a potato, can’t be thrown out of the window
Картошку копать, не руками махать – literally, to dig potatoes is not the same as to wave arms – this is said when something is easier said, than done.

Let me just say that картошка – это просто, вкусно и архетипно (potato is a simple, delicious and archetypal food). If you are invited to a simple жареная картошка (fried potatoes), you know you’ve reached a new level of friendship, where conversation will be especially open and задушевный (heart-felt, intimate).

Капуста (cabbage) – ah, so many delicious Russian dishes use this simple vegetable, from голубцы (stuffed cabbage leaves) to капустный пирог (cabbage pie). The later is not to be confused with капустник (an informal performance of, typically, amateur actors) that is such a great Russian tradition. Капуста is also slang for “money”.

В чужом огороде капусту садит (lit. planting cabbage in someone else’s garden) was said about a nosy person who liked minding others’ business.
Back when I was in school, teachers would sometimes shame нерадивый ученик (neglectful pupil) by saying that their answers sounded as if they had не голова, а кочан капусты на плечах (not a head, but a head of cabbage on the shoulders).

Репа (turnip) – if картошка is straightforward and earthy, репа is elusive and mysterious. Consider this, все поголовно (all without exception) Russian children know, с младых ногтей (from the youngest age) that репа exists. Репка (Turnip), the classic fairy tale, is drilled so deep into our heads, that even as adults we can recite it to our children дословно (word for word) and without any need to refresh our memory. Yet it is fairly hard to find an adult (or a child) who actually saw репа, much less tasted one. This means a lot of confusion in such a seemingly проще пареной репы (a no brainer) task as identifying this veg at an American grocery store.

Редис (radish) – also known as редиска and редька (winter radish such as daikon) – is not exactly a vegetable that we can’t live without (it’s used mostly in salads), but has some of the most widely used catch phrases of all the veggies.

The first one is the expression хрен редьки не слаще (lit. horseradish is no sweeter than garden radish) meaning “six of one and half a dozen of the other”.

Now, if you are talking about someone or something mind-numbingly dull, you can say that it is хуже горькой редьки (lit. worse than a bitter radish).

Finally, thanks to a wonderful comedy Джентельмены удачи (Gentlemen of Fortune), нехороший ты человек, редиска (you are not a nice person, but a radish) became a popular way of gently rebuking someone.

Свёкла (beetroot) – its вклад (contribution) to the Russian language is a lot more modest than its contribution to the Russian cuisine (i.e. борщ (borsch) or свёкольник (cold beet soup) or салат Винегрет (Russian beet salad), to name a few). It is used a lot as a measure of how red can one’s face get, i.e. на морозе щёки раскраснелись, будто их свёклой натёрли (cheeks got so red in the frosty air, as if they were rubbed with beets).

Хрен (horseradish) – just the opposite of свёкла, as far as its contributions go. While its culinary applications are mostly as приправа (condiment) and something used in pickling, this fast-spreading vegetable is present in so many key phrases (all mildly ненормативные (obscene)) , such as

хрен с тобой! (to the devil with you!)
ни хрена (a nothing) as in тут бесплатно наливали, но пока моя очередь дошла, ни хрена не осталось (they were giving away free drinks here, but by the time it was my turn, there was nothing left)
хреновина (thingamaging, watchamacallit) – подай-ка вон ту хреновину (pass me that watchamacallit)

To be continued…

What’s your favorite or most puzzling Russian expression with fruits or vegetables in it?


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  1. Kate:

    VERY interesting, thanks for creating this list! All those sayings were new to me except for the хрен phrases… that was one of the first things I learned when I moved to Ukraine because people say it on the street all the time and because we were invited to drink хреновуха.
    I’m looking forward to your next post : )

  2. Piper Bernadotte:

    “Редис (radish) – also known as редиска and редька”.
    No, редис is редис but редька is редька. It’s different vegetables. Pедис is red and white but редька is light green or black. But inside it’s all the same white.
    For example:
    Редька –
    Редис –
    “Свёкла (beetroot)”
    In some areas of Russia speaks свеклА and without ё but with e. It is correct to say свЁкла.
    “(i.e. борщ (borsch) or свёкольник (cold beet soup)”
    Борщ and свекольник is different soups – борщ is eaten hot, but свекольник is eaten cold. In addition to борщ adds the meat, but no in свекольник.
    “The second most popular after borsch, beetroot soup dishes of Slavic peoples – beetroot soup. It’s a cold summer soup of boiled beetroot with fresh seasonal vegetables, greens, sour cream and ice, which is well throw straight into a bowl. In the role of broth here can serve and beet broth, and beet kvass, and even mineral water.”
    And свекОльник, not свЁкольник.

    I’m sorry for my bad English(