I lived in Moscow for the first eight years of my life, which freezes my native level of Russian language fluency into an almost childlike vocabulary. Don’t get me wrong, though: I can hold my own in a Russian conversation — as long as you don’t mind my accent and my “let’s put Russian words into an English sentence structure” way of speaking.
Though my native tongue may be Westernized, there are words and phrases I wish I could express in English that I ultimately start explaining as, “in Russian, we have this phrase … .” So here’s my official attempt at describing five of my favorite Russian words and phrases in English when there’s just no English equivalent:
1. Greeb-noy dozhd (грибной дождь)
The literal translation of “greeb-noy dozhd” (greeb-noy DAH-zsht) is “mushroom rain,” which basically describes the phenomenon of warm, sunny weather while its raining. Apparently, this is considered the perfect weather for mushrooms to grow, which is how the phrase was born.
A big pastime in my childhood was mushroom hunting. We would go to ours or a friend’s dacha (a vacation or summer home located in the outskirts of a city or in a village) and go mushroom-picking in the nearby forest. I remember the first time I went, I ended up finding the mushrooms — only after I stepped on them.
2. Pochemoochka (почемучка)
I have heard this one all my life. It’s someone — usually a kid — who asks too many questions and is persistent about it. The literal translation of the pochemoochka (pooch-kee-MOOCH-kah) is someone who says “why” a lot. As a kid, I had questions about everything: “Where are we going? Why are we going there? Who are we meeting? Do we have to?” I would either get called a pochemoochka or be told to stop asking so many questions. However, it’s not mean, it’s actually a very tender term of endearment used by older adults for their children or grandchildren.
As a journalist and someone who still asks a million questions, this word is perfect to describe my personality. Can we just add pochemoochka to the English dictionary already so people can flat-out tell me to “stop being a pochemoochka,” instead of politely deflecting my questions?
3. Terpet (терпеть)
Google translates this as “to endure,” but that doesn’t do the word justice. There is more to this word than just to endure something. It is used in a multitude of contexts that translate to waiting, tolerating, suffering or hating. Terpet (tuer-PEDT) is an emotionally charged word that can express impatiently waiting for something or long-suffering.
Russian people, at least my family, don’t have any problem expressing any emotion, including sadness and suffering. This may be because our language gives us so many options on how to pinpoint the emotion we are currently feeling, or it’s simply because we will say whatever is on our minds, including commenting on people’s weight, saying how much we hate doing a certain task, or how someone is really annoying us.
4. Rodnoy/chujoy (родной/чужой)
I lumped these two words together because they are antonyms of one another, and both are lacking the perfect English translation. Rodnoy means either a relation by blood or someone you really care about. Chujoy, on the other hand, translates to “not yours” or “someone else’s” person or thing. This can also mean they are not a relation by blood or they are not in your group of friends or people you know. There is no emotional connection to this person, so you may know them, but they are in another group or on a different team than you.
They don’t have to be a stranger, just kind of foreign to your daily life.
5. The grammatical ability to make everything sound, as my babushka (grandma) puts it, “small and lovely.”
Torteek (тортик) – cute, little cake
Stoleek (столик) – cute, little table
Toofelkee (туфельки) – cute, little shoes
Though this isn’t a phrase or word, it’s a really key aspect of the Russian language. In Russian, you can take any noun or any adjective and make it sound cute and small. Grammatical diminutives make the possibilities of what you’re trying to convey endless. For example, my name in Russian is Dasha (nickname of Daria) and people who are close to me sometimes call me Dashenka or Dashulechka, which are just different ways to say my name in an affectionate way. This is by far my favorite part of my native language because you automatically associate affection and kindness with this diminutive form.
I hope these words and phrases shined a light for some of you about the intricacies of the Russian language.
As my babushka says, the Russian language is the most beautiful and expressive in the world.