Hold your horses and stay as quiet as a mouse because I’m about to let the cat out of the bag:
Languages sure love their animal sayings (in case you haven’t noticed).
Every language has idioms and phrases that revolve around animals. Russian’s no different.
Animals display characteristics that we love to apply to humans. You’ve heard of the sly fox and the loyal dog.
But have you heard of the inadequate goat or the crying cat?
Well, you’re about to.
Welcome to the wonderful world of Russian animal phrases. We’ll show you 10 fun, farm-tastic phrases that’ll have you sounding fluent in a flash.
The Importance of Knowing Russian Phrases
When I was growing up, I thought Russians had a weird relationship with goats.
My mother would say nonsensical things like, “c ума сошла коза” (“the goat went crazy”) or “коза пропала” (“the goat disappeared”). I always wondered what drove the poor goat insane (turns out, this is from an old cartoon) or where the goat disappeared to (I still have no idea).
That’s the beauty of Russian animal sayings. They’re used by many people in many different situations, and although they don’t always make perfect sense, they manage to convey a very specific idea. If that doesn’t convince you to add a couple of phrases to your Russian language tool belt, here are some more benefits to learning common Russian idioms, sayings and phrases:
- Add color to your vocabulary: You can speak perfectly competent Russian without ever calling a goat crazy, but knowing certain commonly-used phrases will add a depth to your language skills that’s difficult to achieve otherwise.
Russian conversations among friends and within your age group tend to be colorful and fun, so knowing these sayings will help you keep up—both while listening to Russian and speaking it.
- Remember words better: If you’re trying to memorize anything, one of the best ways to do so is to pair it with a nonsensical image—the more ridiculous, the better. By remembering words—such as animal names, verbs and descriptive adjectives—in the context of a phrase, you’re making it easier to memorize them for other situations.
- Learn grammar patterns: Learning words in the context of phrases helps you remember how to use the words in any situation. Through sayings, you can learn grammar patterns like comparisons and simple verb usage.
This is the same idea behind FluentU, which teaches Russian through authentic videos like movie trailers, music videos, inspiring talks and more. The immersive, entertaining context makes Russian grammar and vocabulary much more memorable.
FluentU works by transforming the videos into customized language lessons, with interactive subtitles, flashcards, exercises and more. The videos are organized by genre and learning level so you have the freedom to choose what works for you. FluentU also personalizes the experience with progress tracking tools and video suggestions based on what you’ve already watched.
So if the phrases below give your Russian skills a fun boost, keep it going with a FluentU free trial.
- Get cultured: Many Russian fairy tales and classic children’s stories feature talking animals and their personalities have stuck around and infiltrated the language (in the same way that in English we call foxes “sly” because they’re portrayed that way in classic fables).
- Have fun! Some sayings are fairly straightforward. But others are, well, pretty nonsensical! Using phrases—especially animal ones—is a great way to make Russian learning just that much more fun.
Hold Your Horses! 10 Fun Russian Phrases About Animals
Just one small note before we move on to our animal phrases: most of the sayings below are very colloquial and they should all be used in non-professional settings (that is, with friends and other people your age, not with your boss or those you wish to show respect for like the elderly).
Ready to go? Don’t worry, learning these animal sayings will be like shooting fish in a barrel!
1. Пахать как лошадь/работать как лошадь
Literal translation: To toil like a horse/to work like a horse (less crude).
Meaning: To work hard.
The image of the hardworking horse is prevalent in many cultures, as is reflected by this common Russian phrase. It’s generally used as a complaint, implying that someone’s working a difficult but thankless job.
2. Конь не валялся
Literal translation: The horse didn’t roll around.
Meaning: Work hasn’t started yet; work hasn’t been done.
What do rolling horses have to do with work?
The origin of this phrase is uncertain but it might date back to the old practice of letting horses rest a bit before putting them to work. Another theory is that people used to send out their horses and let them choose a location to lie down, indicating a good place to settle.
However it started, the phrase is now used as a way of saying that work hasn’t been done, or more specifically, that it hasn’t even begun yet.
3. На кривой козе не объедешь
Literal translation: You won’t get around it on a crooked goat.
Meaning: It’s difficult to reach/approach someone; something is unavoidable.
You might be able to ride a horse or a donkey, but you won’t get very far on a goat. (See? Goats again!) And on a “crooked” (that is, one-eyed) goat? Forget it!
This phrase is less common, but it’s a fun one to know. It’s used to describe someone who’s unapproachable or difficult to reach, either because they’re aloof or because they’re not easy to get in touch with. The saying can also be used to mean that something’s unavoidable—as in the saying, судьбу и на кривой козе не объедешь (you can’t avoid fate even on a crooked goat).
Goats not really your thing? Another version of the saying uses a mare instead to mean the same thing: На хромой кобыле не подъедешь (you won’t get there on a lame mare).
But what if your goat walks perfectly straight? Even then, the goat won’t get you to where you want to be: На козе не подъедешь (you won’t get there on a goat) means that you can’t take a straight path towards your goal.
Guess it’s time to upgrade to a horse.
4. Денег куры не клюют
Literal translation: The chickens aren’t pecking the money.
Meaning: A lot of money.
Chickens are voracious eaters, so when even the chickens are well fed, it means their owner’s well-off enough to keep them sated. This phrase is used to refer to people (or places, or companies, etc.) who have a lot of money—so much so, that they want for nothing.
5. Есть как птичка
Literal translation: To eat like a little bird.
Meaning: To eat very little.
Strangely enough, though chickens are known for being big eaters, other birds are thought to eat little. This probably arose from the fact that little birds peck at grains and seeds and can never stuff their mouths full of, say, a hearty cheeseburger (how terrible for them).
The phrase has an English equivalent that sounds the same and has the same exact meaning: “To eat like a bird,” that is, to eat very little.
6. Кот наплакал
Literal translation: The cat has cried.
Meaning: Very little of something.
Cats aren’t really big criers, so their tears have become synonymous in Russian with having very little of something, usually money. So the next time you’re unhappy with how much you got in your last paycheck or the pitiful sum in your bank account, you can say, “денег как кот наплакал.” (Literally: “Money like the cat has cried.”)
7. Собаку съел
Literal translation: Ate the dog.
Meaning: To be really good at something.
Russians aren’t in the habit of eating dogs, yet somehow this phrase came about anyway. Someone who “ate the dog” has mastered or become really good at something.
This likely came about from the shortening of the phrase Собаку съел, а хвостом подавился (ate the dog, but choked on the tail), which is used to describe someone who accomplished a lot and almost finished a large task but failed because of a small issue.
Incidentally, the phrase has also made its way into Russian theater with the play “Как я съел собаку” (“How I Ate the Dog”) by author and playwright Евгений Гришковец (Evgeny Grishkovets)—a two-hour introspective monologue, which you can get on DVD (PAL region) at From Russia if you’re curious.
8. Молчать как рыба
Literal translation: To be silent like the fish.
Meaning: To stay quiet about something; not to answer someone.
Fish aren’t exactly known for their talkative nature, so it’s no surprise they’ve given rise to a phrase that has a similar connotation to the English phrase “to keep mum.”
The Russian phrase can mean to stay quiet in response to a question or to stay quiet on a particular topic. Another similar English phrase that gets its origin in the water comes close in meaning: “To clam up.”
9. Жить как кошка с собакой
Literal translation: To live like a cat with a dog.
Meaning: To not get along.
Ever met some people who “fight like cats and dogs?” As it turns out, cats and dogs aren’t friends in Russian culture, either. People who live like a cat and a dog are constantly fighting (maybe you know a couple like this).
10. Волка ноги кормят
Literal translation: The wolf is fed by the legs.
Meaning: To get anything done, you have to get up and do it.
As they say in English, you won’t get anything done by just sitting around! This phrase refers to the fact that food doesn’t just magically march up to the wolf’s waiting jaws. He has to go get it himself.
Though let’s be honest here, sometimes even the best legs won’t get you that roast rabbit dinner.
Now that you’re armed with some animal phrases in English, you’re one step closer to speaking like a native! Now go on and continue your studies. Just remember: Без труда не вытащишь и рыбку из пруда. (Without effort you won’t even pull a fish out of a pond.)
And One More Thing…
Since you’ve read this far, you’re obviously serious about learning Russian. And that means there’s a good chance you’ll love FluentU.
FluentU takes all kinds of real-world videos and turns them into language learning experiences, as you can see here:
Didn’t catch something? Go back and listen again. Missed a word? FluentU makes native Russian videos approachable through interactive captions. Tap or click on any word to see a definition, in-context usage examples, audio pronunciation, helpful images and more.
Access a complete interactive transcript of every video under the Dialogue tab. Easily review words and phrases with audio under Vocab.
Don’t stop there, though. Use FluentU’s quizzes to actively practice all the vocabulary in any video. Swipe left or right to see more examples of the word you’re on.
And FluentU always keeps track of vocabulary that you’re learning. It uses that vocab to give you a 100% personalized experience by recommending videos and examples.
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