Demo lesson
Lost for words


Aug 2013

Sausage dog
When I first went to Moscow I did my best to learn some words. I learnt 'sobaka', dog, and 'kolbasa', a meat sausage for slicing. On my first independent trip to the shop I asked for 'solbaka' and everyone in the queue and the assistant just stared at me. Eventually, by pointing I got what I wanted. My Russian family couldn't stop laughing. A little knowledge is dangerous as is mixing sounds.

Sent to by: Keith Wood

Public houses for the proletarians
On a trip to the old USSR we were allocated an interpreter who spoke very correct English but translated word by word. When he described the achievements of communist builders, he was greeted with gales of laughter. He looked rather crestfallen until a kindly man explained that, yes, publichnyj means 'public' and dom means 'house', but publichnyj dom does not really translate into English where it turns into 'pub'. In Russian it means 'council house', of which Stalin built several millions, we'd been told!
Editor's note:Not quite! Publichnyj dom is indeed a very public house - it's a brothel! If Stalin ever got any of those built, is unkown ...

Sent to by: Graham

Smoking chicken
Once at a bus stop in Russia a young man and I had started talking. Not a common occurrence there - but he liked the fact that I was an American girl. He offered me a cigarette while we were waiting.
- Kurish? (do you smoke?), he asked me.
I answered by saying 'No, I don't smoke'. Or so I thought I did. He looked puzzled and our conversation stopped after that. Later I realized that I said:
- Net, ya ne kuritsa, no, I'm not a chicken.
Editor's note: The correct phrase would have been Net, ya ne kurju. / No, I don't smoke.

Sent to by: Heather

Strange profession
While in Azerbaijan I was learning Russian from a tutor, Natalya. I had been conjugating verbs and learning infinitive forms but unfortunately hadn't yet mastered irregular verbs. I'm a writer so when someone asked me one day what I did I answered: Ja pisayu. I got a very strange look. What I said was actually "I urinate"! Unfortunately, the Russian verb pisat', to write, when conjugated regularly and used in first person form, means "I urinate".
Editor's note: The Russian verb pisat' is indeed a tricky one. It can both mean to write and to urinate. Only when conjugated the real meaning reveals itself: the irregular Ja pišu means I write and the regular Ja pisayu means I urinate. While pisat', to write, is a genuinly Slavonic verb, pisat', to urinate, is a relatively recent loan from the French pisser. Both verbs only happen to look the same!

Sent to by: Freda

Boring lunch
While at a restaurant during a year out in St Petersburg, a friend tried to chat up the waitress at the end of a meal by saying Ochen' skuchno. The waitress looked very puzzled, shook her head and went off. Unfortunately my friend got something mixed up and said 'Very boring' instead of Ochen' vkusno, meaning 'Very delicious'! Needless to say, he didn't ask for her phone number.

Sent to by:  Chris

Tolstoy's new book
Some years ago my wife was teaching Russian at university and was one day confronted by a very excited student who had discovered a hitherto unknown masterpiece by Leo Tolstoy entitled 'Sunday'. His moment of glory was sadly short-lived when he was informed that Voskresenye (which does indeed mean Sunday) may also be translated (depending on context) as Tolstoy's somewhat better known work 'Resurrection'.

Sent to by: Howard

A talented student
After having studied Russian for 2 1/2 years, I spent a semester in Moscow. One of the most challenging aspects of the Russian language is that there seem to be practically no patterns to govern where the stress on a syllable goes and accents are not written. Russians simply know where the accent goes. Apparently, some words can be spelled exactly the same but mean totally different things depending on stress. So one day in class, I wanted to say that I did my homework yesterday: Vchera vecherom ya napisal domashneye zadaniye with the stress on the middle syllable of napisal. My professor burst into laughter. She informed me that I most likely meant to say: ya napisal ... with the stress on the last syllable. Just by getting the stress wrong I've actually said 'yesterday I urinated my homework'. Oops.

Sent to by: Jason

While studying Russian in Voronezh last year a fellow student wanted to ask a barwoman for another glass (daite pozhaluista eshcho odin stakan) when he instead asked for another starik, old man. Needless to say the barwoman started to laugh and then moments later we heard hoots of laughter from the kitchens when she told her workmates.

Sent to by: Ammon

I'll have the hedgehog, please.
In the early days of my Russian studies, at the canteen in the faculty of Moscow State University where I was studying, I looked at the cabbage soup, which appeared to be the most appetising thing on the day's menu and grappling for a word which I knew consisted of 2 letters, a vowel followed by something obscure and cyrillic, I managed to splutter "yozh, pozhaluista"... seconds later, as the lady with the laddle looked at me with deep confusion, I realised I had asked for "hedgehog"! The word I was in fact striving for, was shchee....

Sent to by: Sarah

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