Russian idioms: the sum is greater than the parts, or, e pluribus unum

There are some idioms that just don’t make any sense when you encounter them for the first time, even if you know all of the words in them. The worst are the ones composed of really common prepositions, particles and other bits and bobs. I’ve come across a number of them in my time learning Russian:

  • как раз, exactly, precisely
  • мало ли, “you never know”, “on the off chance”
  • так себе, middling, not good or bad; bad (the dictionaries seem to say one thing but the native speakers another on this one!)
  • уж что-что, а… “be that as it may, but”, “that well may be, but”
  • ну то-то же, “didn’t I tell you?”, “I told you so!”, “there you are!” (but this is one I’m still hazy on!)
  • ещё бы, naturally
  • And a new one I learned today! Почём зря, strongly, to the fullest extent

The problems for a learner with all of the above are a) that each of the constituent words is very common and b) the overall meaning bears no relation to that of the individual words! Let’s take the above apart to show this:

  • как, how
  • раз, time (countable)
  • мало, little (adv.)
  • ли, whether (interrogative particle)
  • так, like, as, so, such
  • себе, “to oneself”, “to itself” (reflexive pronoun in the dative case)
  • уж, a form of уже, already (but with a slightly different meaning!)
  • что, what (question word); that (relative pronoun)
  • а, but
  • ну, well (as in, “Well, I don’t know, maybe…”); well! (as in, “Well, get on with it!”); host of other nuances
  • то, by itself: “that” (demonstrative pronoun, neuter); as a suffix: added for emphasis
  • же, emphatic particle (no single English translation)
  • ещё, yet, still, more
  • бы, conditional particle
  • почём, “how much?”
  • зря, “in vain”

So you can see: no relationship whatsoever! It’s perfectly maddening when you don’t know the meaning but a great relief when you do find it out. I remember being very puzzled, during my first year in Russia, by как раз and мало ли in particular. I heard them everywhere, which eventually forced me to look them up.

If you have any more examples to add – and I mean only idioms of the type above, not ones that are based mainly on nouns and verbs such as белая ворона, бабушка надвое сказала, курам на смех, etc., which are a topic for another day – I’d love to read them in the comments!


3 thoughts on “Russian idioms: the sum is greater than the parts, or, e pluribus unum

    • You’re welcome! I had you in mind when writing that! To be honest though I think так себе is a little worse than “grand”. Maybe some better translations of “grand” would be «ничего», «ничего так», «нормально» – all dependent on context of course!

    • I’ve now removed ‘grand’ because on reflection that word is on the wrong side of positive from так себе. The dictionaries say that так себе means middling, passing well, neither good or bad; but I have it on authority from a native speaker that it means just bad! So a little confusing.

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