Laughing Hens and Silent Cows

Back by popular demand, here are some more widely-used and wonderful Russian sayings, this time all following the theme of animals. Enjoy!

Чья бы корова мычала, а твоя бы молчала

Корова is the Russian for cow, and what do cows do? They either moo – мычать, or stay silent – молчать. Thus, whose cow would moo, and yours would stay silent.

In ancient Rus’ there was often drought which was blamed on the sins of humans. How to appease God? The extremely religious population came to the conclusion that if God did not want to listen to people, then he would listen to the livestock. Thus, when the threat of drought became apparent, shepherds stopped feeding their herd so that the cows would moo more, sending cries for help to God. So, this expression was born, to be addressed to those with full grain stores, even in times of poor harvest.

In modern times, it is directed at those who speak carelessly and with judgement, often reproaching others for faults which can also be attributed to the speaker, to try and stop them talking or in response to such accusations. Our English equivalent would be ‘the pot calling the kettle black’.

Я не я, и лошадь не моя

“It wasn’t me”

Я is of course the Russian for I, and лошадь is the word for horse. So, this expression literally translates as ‘I am not me and the horse is not mine’. It is used when the speaker is trying to remove himself from any blame, by emphasising that he does not know anything about the situation or an event that has happened.

Цыплят по осени считают

Цыплёнок is the Russian for a chick, and it does something funny when it becomes a plural form: цыплята. Осень means autumn, and using it with по just before gives it the meaning of in the autumn, every autumn. Считать can mean several things but here it means to count, making the literal translation: count chicks in the autumn.

The expression can be used when someone begins talking of their success before it has even been achieved. It is not worth counting on something until you are completely sure that it will materialise. It is based on reality: chick breeding depends on the season, and it is habitual to wait until the autumn to count your chicks, because by then they will have overcome the most dangerous part of their young lives (when most susceptible to illness, predators, hunger). Like many Russian sayings, this one probably originates from a time when the population was mainly involved in agricultural practices.

The closest English equivalent does not veer far from the Russian with ‘don’t count your chickens before they’re hatched.’

Happy you’ve reached a compromise

И волки сыты, и овцы целы

Волка is the Russian word for wolf, and сытый means full or satiated, while овца means sheep (овцы is the plural) and целый means whole: the wolves are full and the sheep are intact.

The saying is used in contexts where the conditions are favourable to both sides, usually after a compromise or to describe the positive result of attempts to please people with different views or interests. It is also sometimes used to describe a principled person who is always sure of what path he should take, and what is considered good or bad.

There is no direct English equivalent, as this saying emphasises the result of two sides coming to an agreement, but a similar English saying about compromise emphasises the need to be open to accepting the other side’s demands, as compromise is impossible if no side relents: have your cake and eat it.

Когда рак на горе свистнет

If you’ve been closely following my series on proverbs by theme, you’ll remember рак from last time, but I’ll assume you haven’t and tell you it’s the word for crayfish. More astute Russian (and biology?) students will notice it is not in its natural habitat, but instead на горе – on the mountain. And even more improbable, the crayfish is whistling – infinitive form свистеть.

As you can probably tell from the strangeness of the literal translation, this proverb is used to describe something that is highly unlikely to happen or, in some instances, it may happen but the speaker has no idea when. It is thought to originate from an old folk saying.

The English equivalent would be ‘when pigs fly’ or ‘when hell freezes over’.

Курам на смех

Курица is the singular for chicken, but the plural is куры, and смех is the Russian for laughter. Кура is the old Russian name for a chicken, and its Slavonic roots are made clear by the fact that in other Slavonic languages (Czech, Slovenian, Polish…) the word for a chicken is ‘kura’.

Russians use the image of laughing chickens to describe something ridiculous, silly and completely unsatisfactory, which is essentially a complete joke. Usually used in the context of work: maybe a composition, drawing, costume… you could even use it to describe this article. It also means that it is so funny, that even people who don’t laugh easily, will.

But why choose the chicken to revolve a saying around? Goose and turkey do not laugh either. Well, this is apparently because the clucking of chickens resembles hysterical laughter. However, the exact origin of this saying is not altogether clear.

The English equivalent is ‘it is enough to make a cat laugh’.

Start using these in everyday conversations and impress your Russian teachers/ friends/ host family!

This post was written by Claire, currently studying Russian at Liden & Denz.

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Posted by Claire Burchett

Hello! I'm Claire and I’ll be interning at Liden & Denz St. Petersburg until the end of August, exploring my love of travel, culture and food.

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