Much ado about nothing

‘Nothing’ in Russian is ничего [nichevo]. This can be thought of as the genitive case of ничто [nishto], which also means ‘nothing’, but whose usage is much more limited, and which comes from ни [ni], ‘not, no-‘ and что [shto], ‘what’.

Today, though, I’m not going to discuss the grammar and usage of the word itself, but rather present some idiomatic phrases it’s used in. Some of these can be quite surprising when you first come across them as a learner and bear direct translation into English badly:

  • Ничего себе! [Nichevo sebye!] ‘Well!’, ‘my goodness’, ‘you don’t say!’ (lit., ‘nothing to itself!’) and many other possible translations, all of which express shock, surprise and amazement. This is the most polite of a number of versions. The others go ни … себе, where … represents curse words of various strengths in the genitive singular with stress on the suffix. (I’ll come back to this!)
  • Как тебе Катя? Да, она ничего. [Kak tebye Katya? Da, ona nichevo.] ‘How do you like Katya? Yeah, she’s all right.’ Not: ‘she is nothing’, as it literally translates! Here ничего means ‘acceptable, fine, middling’. Similarly, if someone asks how your day’s been, как день прошёл? [kak dyen’ proshol?], you can answer ничего так, нормально [nichevo tak, normal’no].
  • Гостиница там была очень даже ничего. [Gostinitsa tam byla ochen’ dazhe nichevo.] ‘The hotel there was rather good’ (lit.: ‘very even nothing’). This is seemingly a very positive assessment, if we can judge at least by this very happy guest’s review of a hotel in Cyprus. It also seems to be possible to say очень ничего and даже очень ничего.
  • Извините, что я так поздно. Ничего! [Izvinite, shto ya tak pozdno. Nichevo!] ‘Sorry that I’m so late.’ ‘Don’t worry about it!’ People also say it twice: ничего-ничего! There are other phrases with ничего used to respond to apologies, such as ничего страшного! [nichevo strashnovo!], lit. ‘nothing scary’, that is, ‘no problem!’

In all of these examples, ничего is reduced in fast speech to ничё [nicho], and the other words can be too. Ничего себе becomes ничё се [nicho sye], for example.

I’m sure there are a load I’ve missed, but … ничего страшного! Feel free to add any more you’ve heard of or any thoughts or questions you have in the comments.


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