Russian Idioms: A Lesson in Language and Culture

Published: January 23, 2019

Very often, commonly used expressions in a language will have been in use for so long that their origins are now unclear. Sometimes there is clear origin. This new project from SRAS will help explain what some popular expressions mean in Russian and, where possible, where they came from.

I. From the French

The Russian language was once heavily influenced by French. This led to the adoption of many words and popular expressions from French or developed with words that were originally French.

Вешать лапшу на уши

The expression “вешать лапшу на уши” means “to lie to someone” or, literally, “to hang noodles on ears.” This phrase most likely came from the French “La Poshe” which means “the pocket” and was nickname for pickpockets who, as part of their scam, would sometimes clap people on their shoulders and quietly steal from them while asking some mundane question.

The word morphed when it entered Russian to a single word: “лапша,” which also now means “noodles.”

In criminal slang, “лапша” also came to mean a case which was fabricated to imprison someone when there was not enough evidence.

Вернемся к нашим баранам

Вернемся к нашим баранам” is another phrase that entered Russian through French influence. It means “let’s get back to the point,” and literally translates to “we return to our sheep.”

The phrase originated in a French court in the Middle Ages. Apparently, sheep had been stolen and the defendant’s attorney had not paid the plaintiff for some fabric. The hearing kept switching to the issue of the fabric, when the case at hand actually concerned the sheep. It eventually became comical when the judge was forced to admonish those present to “please get back to the sheep.”

Especially in later tsarist times, French influence on Russian culture and the Russian language was very pronounced.

Дело в шляпе

The word “шляпa” also came from French, where the word for “hat” is “chapeau.” The (morphed) word entered Russian at the end of the 1500s, and was originally used to refer to most types of non-Russian hats. The word’s meaning eventually expanded to include any hat.

The Russian idiom “дело в шляпе,” a phrase that means “it’s in the bag” or, literally, “the deal is in the hat,” has four likely origins.

Given the origin of the word, one of the most likely origins of the phrase is that “гонцы, чтобы не потерять важные бумаги, зашивали их под подкладку шапки или шляпы” (“messengers, in order not to lose important papers, sewed up them under the lining of their cap or hat”). Particularly those messengers coming from abroad would have reason to want keep the messages safe over a considerable time and perhaps keep them secret as well.

Another possible origin comes from the fact that sometimes, “чиновники, разбиравшие дела, брали взятки в шляпы” (“officials who heard cases would accept bribes placed in their hats”).

And still another version hold that the idiom comes from a tradition of settling arguments or deciding issues by drawing lots from a hat. Often, for instance, the person who drew the winning lot would be granted the right to, for instance, trade in a certain product in a particular location or would win a government contract.

Дело в шляпе” in modern Russian can also have more general meanings such as “всё будет в порядке” (everything will be all right), “дело почти сделано” (work is about to be done / the deal is about to be concluded), “дело удается” (things are going well).

II. From Professional Work

Russian also has several expressions connected with professions and professional behaviors. There are, of course, those that express respect and those that deride.

Большая шишка

For example, the expression “большая шишка” means “важный человек, большой начальник, босс” (an important person, manager, or boss) but literally translates to “big pinecone.” The pinecone, as the vessel of pine seeds, was known as the creator of the mighty forests that both provided ancient Russians with food and building materials but also with many sources of danger. The pinecone thus was an important symbol of fertility and power in pagan times and retained its powerful symbolism even well into tsarist time, particularly among poor peasants and workers.

The specific expression “большая шишка” as it is used today originated from the language of бурлаки (barge haulers) who began to refer to the puller in the lead position as the “шишка.” This person carried the biggest and most important load while hauling a vessel. He was thus generally the strongest and most experienced of the group and, in fact, the earnings of the entire group depended on just how strong and skillful this person was at quickly and safely hauling the barge to where it needed to go. Calling this person by the name of an ancient talisman was considered a compliment and, most likely, a way of wishing good fortune upon the group.

Тертый калач

Another positive expression is “тертый калач” (a grated/rubbed loaf). The term refersInternship-Ad to an “очень опытный  человек, которого трудно обмануть” (a very experienced person who is difficult to be deceived/tricked).

калач (kalach) is a traditional bread usually formed as a ring and often braided. A тертый калач is made from special dough and kneaded and rubbed for an exceptionally long time. This type of калач is a favorite as the extreme work produces a loaf that is extremely soft, delicious, and thick.

In the Russian language, the verb “тереть” means usually means “grate” but can more generally refer to the action of “to run to and fro onto the surface with hard pressing” (водить взад вперед по поверхности с большим нажимом). Therefore, the expression likely originated not from the bread name, but from the verb “тереть” as it was thought that the “grating” makes one’s character stronger.

Incidentally, a person who made калачи became known, as a profession, as “калачников” or “калашников.” This, in turn, eventually became a last name handed down to ancestors (just like “Baker” in English) and is thus a source of the name a famous Russian automatic weapon. The Kalashnikov is named for its inventor, Mikhael Kalashnkov.

Точить лясы

There is another popular expression that was once positive in meaning and later became derogatory. “Точить лясы” (wag one’s tongue) literally means “to sharpen handrail pillars.” Traditional Russian wooden houses are famous for their woodwork, often with delicate lattices around windows and over the roofs. The handrails on the porch are often supported with intricate pillars as well. Those “лясы” (also called “балясы“) are “точеные фигурные столбики перил у крылечка” (decoratively carved handrail pillars). Those that could create this type of woodwork were highly respected.

Initially, “точить лясы” meant “вести изящную, причудливую, витиеватую беседу” (to have graceful, fancy, florid conversation). Eventually, the term began to be more often used ironically and, over time, started to refer to “пустая болтовня” (idle talk).

Филькина грамота

Finally, an example of such an expression with an entirely negative meaning is Филькина грамота.” This specific expression is likely still popular because writing in Russia, especially for anything expected to have professional or legal weight, is expected to be letter-perfect and without corrections. Anything less should be thrown out and begun again from scratch.

Филькина грамота” refers to any document that is “невежественный, безграмотно составленный или не неправильно составленный документ” (written ignorantly, with many mistakes in spelling or grammar, and/or not having legal weight).

In ancient times in Russia, Филя or Филька was a name common among common people. To call anyone from the ruling classes by this name would have been an insult. It was often used, particularly by the nobility, to refer to anyone deemed gullible, naïve, or stupid.

This expression was popularized by Tsar Ivan the Terrible when Philip II, Metropolitan of Moscow, sent a letter to Ivan denouncing the tsar’s creation of a secret police force and the imprisonment and torture of many people who were suspected of being traitorous. Ivan the Terrible called the letter “Филькина грамота” and then had the Metropolitan arrested and killed.

While the fate of a modern producer of a “Филькина грамота” is certainly not likely be as harsh, but the term is still popularly used and can be thought of as the speaker giving the document’s writer an “F.”

About the author

Andrei Nesterov

Andrei Nesterov

Andrei Nesterov leads SRAS' Research Services, performing remote archive research and consultations for researchers around the globe. Andrei graduated from Ural State University (journalism) and Irkutsk State Linguistic University (English). He also studied public policy and journalism at Duke University on a Muskie Fellowship and taught Russian at West Virginia University. As a journalist, he has reported in both Russian and English language outlets and has years of archival research experience. He has travelled Russia extensively and penned many stories on the “real Russia” which lies beyond the capital and major cities. Andrei also contributes news, feature stories, and language resources to the SRAS Family of Sites.

Program attended: SRAS Staff Member

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