Somewhat Bad Words

Daniel Brooks

Russian is rich in expressions that are reasonably respectable replacements for bad words. One is horseradish (khren). It sounds similar in Russian to a rude word that refers to something men have but women don’t. The usage of Khren is similar to the English usage of ‘darn’ instead of damnation without being confused with sewing. 

Khren ends up being used in several ways such as go horseradish yourself (poshel ti nakhren), only horseradish knows (khren ego znaet) and as an untranslatable adjective (khrenovo) meaning very bad, one of my favourites.  At times the word is thrown into a sentence for no reason at all. If horseradish is ordered in a restaurant, it doesn’t have any kind of bad connotation at all and that’s how non-native speakers should use it.

Devil, or chort, is a reasonably acceptable word and can be said in place of phrases that are a lot worse. It is one of the few Russian swear words that can be used all by itself. While working on fixing the sink, and failing to get the job done, say chort and call a plumber. That’s my strategy. The devil can go into a rich array of expressions. My favourite is ‘the devil is never as terrible as he is painted’ (chort ne tak strashen kak yego malyuyut), meaning that nothing is as bad as it seems. This is a useful expression in a country where terrible things are often the topic of conversation and matters becoming worse cannot be ruled out. Over time, things turn out to be not so bad, after all. In Russia, this approach is a form of optimism.   

A blin (rhymes with green) is a thin pancake similar to a crepe. Blin sounds vaguely similar to a much worse word that refers to a woman with questionable morals. No one thinks about pancakes when the word is used in this way. It can be said all by itself, in polite and rude company and fits almost anywhere in a sentence. Sometimes Russians go all out and say blin kompot which word for word means ‘pancake fruit juice’. If you are eating ice cream out of a cone and drop it on the floor, you might say blin kompot with a meaning that is similar to ‘gosh darn it’ in American English. Of course, when someone wants to have a pancake, the meaning switches to a normal one and the first thing that comes to mind is sour cream and caviar, or jam, and a pot of tea…not loose women.

Another common word in Russian is uzhas. It isn’t a swear word at all but when I hear it coming, I say chort to myself. Uzhas means terrible, and it pops up in conversations about disasters, a popular topic of discussion in Russia. Often, a terrible incident or accident comes up and is discussed in detail. As the story is being told, or when it’s finished, the thing to say is Uzhas with emphasis on the ‘u’. The consensus seems to be, there go our fellow citizens and government, mucking things up. What did you expect? Often, terrible things happen outside the country which is doubly terrible. This isn’t right, in the mind of Russians. Other ‘developed’ countries claim to be better organized than Russia and more advanced. In those countries, dams should not break, mass shootings shouldn’t take place and an airplane flying in the wrong direction is inconceivable. This belief isn’t a double standard, it is a higher one. In the Russian way of thinking, better organized countries should act as a kind of benchmark, especially European ones. The Russians need to believe that outside their borders, the situation is better. In those countries, something could be done about it. In Russia, not so much.

If you are ever taught a Russian swear word by someone you don’t know very well, trust but verify. Ask around and make sure it is an authentic one. Then, don’t use it. Russians who have moved overseas are known to play tricks on foreigners who are struggling to learn the Russian language. In 1980 I was taught a bad word by a Russian living in the US. I have never heard it used since and when I try to say it, I’m emphatically told not to. The expression turned out to be fantastically rude, obscure and unused by anyone but myself and that one guy from Odessa.

A synonym of uzhas is kashmar which I recently learned is French, spelled cauchemar, and literally means “nightmare”. When talking about a disaster in either France or Russia, now you know what to say. When talking about a disaster in either France or Russia, now you know what to say. Kashmar!

As a foreigner, avoid teaching Russian curse words to other foreigners. I once made the mistake of teaching a very bad Russian word to someone I worked for. Later on he used it in a conversation with a high-level Kazakh government official and his wife. I was the translator. Everyone was mortified, except my boss who said I taught it to him.

Russians don’t often use swear words that have to do with bovine by-products, as Americans do. The Russians have got a related word I am fond of but never use. It is poDOnok (emphasis on the second syllable) meaning scumbag. It should only be used in extreme circumstances. I once heard someone call his inept and crooked lawyer a poDOnok, a usage that seemed fitting.

Early in my Russia career (for better or worse) I had a job on a construction site as a translator. It gave me a once in a lifetime opportunity to master a wide variety of swear words and use them at my place of employment. Since then, I’ve found out that when an American swears in Russian, people usually cringe. For some reason, it doesn’t sound right. It can be effective, though, in the right circumstances. Once I went fishing with half a dozen Russian lumberjacks in the great beyond of the Russian wilderness. How I got there is a long story. While out deep in the woods, catching fish illegally with a net, the lumberjacks told me that Alaska is rightfully Russian territory. I didn’t argue with them, being smaller than them and outnumbered. Finally, one of the lumberjacks asked my opinion. I told them Alaska is ours (alyaska nasha) and they could go jump on some horseradish. But instead of saying horseradish, I used another word. That seemed to do the trick. After we’d caught our bucket of illegal fish, we got along like a house on fire.

Daniel Brooks, 14 March 2019, Copyright