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15.09.2017 16:37
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Unusual Russian Idioms: Do not make an elephant out of a fly!

Although remembering idioms is not always that easy, you cannot deny that idioms are one of the more interesting parts of learning a new language. We have collected for you some of the more unusual idioms and idiomatic phrases, as well as trivia related to each of them. Enjoy!


1. Делать из му́хи слонá 

Literal Meaning: To make an elephant out of a fly.

Meaning: To exaggerate, make something more serious than it is.

English variant: To Make a mountain out of a molehill.


Did you know? This phraseologism comes from the Ancient Greek writer, Lucian, who, in his work Ode to a Fly, used the phrase ‘make an elephant out of a fly’ to mean ‘exaggerate’.


2. Тяну́ть котá за хвост 


Literal Meaning: To pull the cat by its tail.

Meaning: To not get to the point, to give a long-winded explanation of something that goes off-topic.

English equivalent: To beat around the bush


Did you know? Nobody really knows where this phraseologism came from and why it now means what it means. Many believe that it used to mean ‘to do something rashly, too hastily; to act in a sudden manner’ (which would make sense, considering what a cat would do if its tail were pulled!).


3. Заблуди́ться в трёх сóснах 

Literal Meaning: To get lost between three pine trees.

Meaning: To fail to understand a very simple thing.


Did you know? They say that this phrase was brought into the language by satirical writer Saltykov-Shchedrin, who wrote a piece about the silly adventures of some travellers. These travellers could not only get lost amongst three pines trees, but would also use a sieve to fetch water, get their legs mixed up under the table, and forget whether a person had a head or not.


4. Два сапогá пáра


Literal Meaning: Two boots are a pair.

Meaning: Two things (usually people) are very similar to each other.

English equivalent: Two peas in a pod.


Did you know? This phrase comes from ancient Russian times when a shoe would be made identically to its pair (i.e. both the left and right shoe would be exactly the same). Now, of course, most shoes come with a left and a right variant!


5. Тришкин кафтан


Literal Meaning: Trishka's Coat.

Meaning: When a person tries to fix something but, in doing so, creates yet another problem.

English equivalent: Robbing Peter to pay Paul


Did you know? This phrase comes from Ivan Krylov's fable "Trishka's Coat" ("Тришкин кафтан"), 1815, in which Trishka attempts to patch his old coat by first cutting off a quarter of the sleeves to cover the elbows and then having to cut off the flaps and tails to lengthen the sleeves.


6. Заткнуть кого́-нибудь за пояс


Literal Meaning: To shove someone behind one's belt.

Meaning: To beat someone (to be better than them, to outdo them).


Did you know? According to old Russian custom, the belt was an essential part of both men and women's clothing. A person would tuck their shirt behind their belt, to keep it out of the way while they worked; skilled craftsmen would tuck their tools behind their belt - the belt became intrinsically linked with skill and ability. This is perhaps how the phrase ‘tuck behind the belt’ came to mean ‘surpass someone’ (in work, in ability).

There is yet another possible explanation as to how this phrase came about. In order for a person to win a traditional Russian fight, they had to grab their opponent’s belt, before throwing them to the ground.


7. После до́ждичка в четвéрг 

Literal Meaning: After the rain on Thursday.

Meaning: On an unknown future day (probably never).

English equivalent: When hell freezes over; when pigs fly; God knows….


Did you know? This phraseologism dates owes its origin to Ancient Rus. Slavic pagans believed in gods and often brought requests to gods. Their main god was called ‘Perun’ and was the god of thunder (and rain) and war. They often prayed to Perun for rain, so as to prevent drought and bad harvest. Perun’s special day was Thursday. This was the day when petitions made to Perun for rain were considered to be especially effective. Of course, these petitions were not always successful - rain did not always come on Thursday. Therefore, this phrase came about to express scepticism that something will happen. If a person says that something will happen ‘after the rain on Thursday’, then it means they don’t think it will ever happen.  


8. Шапочное знакомство 


Literal Meaning: A hat relationship.

Meaning: A casual, superficial relationship.

English equivalent: A fleeting acquaintance


Did you know? This phrase came about out of cultural etiquette. Men used to have to take off their hat to those they met who were of higher class; if they met friends or acquaintances, then they could shake hands; if they met close friends or relatives, then they could hug. Therefore, a ‘hat acquaintance’ meant that they were acquaintances, and not friends.


9. Делить шкуру неубитого медведя


Literal Meaning: To share out the bear's skin before the bear has been killed.

Meaning: to count on future results that may never arise.

English equivalent: to count one’s chickens before they hatch.


Did you know? This idiom came from the French for ‘dividing the skin of the dead bear’, which was around from the 16th century onwards.


10. Быть не в своей тарелке 


Literal Meaning: To not be in one's own plate.

Meaning: to feel uncomfortable, out of sorts.

English equivalent: To be out of one’s element.


Did you know? This phrase came about due to a translation error. A translator at the start of the 19th century translated the French phrase ‘n'être pas dans son assiette’ as ‘not being in one’s plate’ instead of ‘being out of sorts’. He didn’t know that ‘assiette’ could mean both ‘plate’ and also ‘mood, state’!  


We hope that you have enjoyed learning some new and unusual phrases! Now that you know a few more idioms, why not try using them in conversation this week?

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