Russian Language Blog

What Is Better: Beating Around the Bush or Pulling a Cat by Its Tail? Posted by on Jul 29, 2015 in History, language


The short answer is neither because the expressions are synonymous. If you are pulling a cat by its tail in Russia you are, in many cases, simply beating around the bush. Set expressions in any foreign language can frequently leave you baffled and confused. I remember my first encounter with the saying “thinking outside the box.” It was shortly after I moved to America. My date was desperately trying to explain to me what it meant but for some reason it was not registering. I am sure you have or will have similar instances and I encourage you to share them in the comment section. In the meantime, I will shed some light on some of my favorite Russian set expressions.

  1. Тянуть кота за хвост Translated literally: to pull a cat by its tail

    Origin: unknown

    Meaning: to linger, to avoid doing/telling something, to wait unnecessarily long, to beat around the bush

    Ладно, хватит тянуть кота за хвост. Говори, зачем пришёл.OK, enough beating around the bush. Tell me why you are here.

    Босс, я им триста раз сказал закончить работу, а они по-прежнему тянут кота за хвост.Boss, I told them to finish the job a hundred times but they are dragging it out for all it’s worth.

  2. Игра не стоит свеч

    Translated literally: the game is not worth the candles

    Origin: apparently, this expression has something to do with playing cards. If the bets are too low to justify the candles used to lit the table, one would say the game is not worth the candles.

    Meaning: the saying means that the payoff is not worth the effort that went into a particular undertaking. This saying is synonymous with the English “the juice is worth/not worth the squeeze.”

    Я решил остаться в Самаре. В моём возрасте эта игра не стоит свеч.I decided to stay in Samara. At my age this juice is not worth the squeeze.

  3. Водить за нос

    Translated literally: to walk someone by their nose

    Origin: the saying has something to do with what used to be a common street fair attraction. In the old days gypsies in Russia used to walk bears by a ring threaded through their nose; they used to entice bears into doing certain things by showing them the treat but not giving it.

    Meaning: to promise and not deliver, to pull one’s leg, to pull a wool over one’s eyes, to deceive

    Она его уже пять лет за нос водит.She’s had a wool over his eyes for five years now.

  4. (Прийти) к шапочному разбору

    Translated literally: to come when they are collecting their hats

    Origin: this saying came into existence when Russian men used to put their hats in a pile before entering church since wearing a hat was not allowed. After the service was over, everyone took their hat from the pile on the way out. If someone showed up when everyone else was picking up their hat, they obviously missed missed the service.

    Meaning: to be really late, to miss something, to come after the event is over

    Вы, девушка, пришли к самому шапочному разбору. Я все хорошее уже продал.You, young lady, came way too late. I already sold all the good stuff.

If you have a favorite Russian set expression or a story associated with one, I invite you to share them in the comment section!


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About the Author: Jenya

Born in Russia, I spent the first twenty years of my life in Orenburg, Russia and Mogilev, Belarus. For the last eleven years, I've lived in New Hampshire and Michigan, US. While I continue to absorb and adapt to American culture, I am always thrilled to share my Russian heritage with those who find it interesting. Travel, photography and art play a special part in my life. Twitter: @iamnx2u


  1. Jenny:

    Hi. I’ve just discovered your blog and I love it, so interesting!
    I live in the USA now but I’m French and interestingly in French we have the exact two same expressions with the exact same meaning. The first one is: le jeu n’en vaut pas la chandelle which is the exact translation of игра не стоит свеч . Your explanation is the one I found on French websites too, apparently it dates back to the XVIth century. Some say that it could also come from the theatre world, as you had to burn many candles to have enough light in the theatre and if you hadn’t sold enough tickets it just wasn’t worth playing.
    The second expression is: mener quelqu’un par le bout du nez, which exact translation is to lead (physically) someone by the tip of the nose, so very close to водит за нос . I found the same explanation than the one you give, with indications that it dates back to the XVIIIth century, but another explanation I found refer to a very similar expression that can be found in the work of Greek author Lucian of Samosata, who wrote in the second century! I wonder if those are French expressions that got translated in Russian when French was the official court language in Russia.
    Thanks a lot for bringing those up!