Interesting and Unusual Russian Words
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While learning the most common Russian words will help you learn the language faster, learning more unorthodox ones can help you sound more interesting when you speak Russian in conversation, and even help you understand native Russian speakers to a higher degree.
How to Learn Russian Words
To actually remember a new Russian word, you need to make an emotional connection to it. While that sounds like a lot of fluffy nonsense at first glance, it actually works.
The way to do it is to put new words in sentences that trigger some kind of reaction (whether it’s a laugh, a sorrowful sigh, or simply feeling a bit puzzled). This will make it easier for you to remember the word and the ones surrounding it in the sentence. On this page, you’ll see examples of how this can work for each word included in the list.
Related to this first step, another way to improve your vocabulary is to learn every new word through an authentic context that interests you. Your favorite pastimes in English can help you learn a new language.
For example, if you’re a history buff, don’t try to learn relevant vocabulary by hoping to chance upon it in some random textbook. Pick up material written for native Russians, especially content designed for preteen children (which uses simple language without baby talk). That way, you can learn words and phrases that will actually be useful to you personally. Better yet, if you use audio/visual material, you can improve your Russian skills and Russian pronunciation.
If this concept for language learning sounds appealing to you but a bit too difficult, FluentU might just be the solution you’ve been looking for. It uses authentic Russian videos about all kinds of intriguing, culturally relevant topics which will get you beyond basic Russian words and propel you forward to becoming fluent.
Sweet Stats and Fun Facts
Let’s start off with a bit of good news.
The largest Russian dictionaries contain around 150,000 words. How is that good? Contrast it with the fact that the largest English dictionaries have about 400,000 words.
Russians themselves usually know about 10,000 words. Only 2,000 of those are commonly used. Even learning the 100 most common words will get you very far in understanding day-to-day usage of the Russian language.
Better yet, Russian has a number of words borrowed from English, especially ones relating to technology (Интернет — Internet and компьютер — computer, for example). And English has a few words derived from Russian as well! This means that you already have a head start on learning Russian.
Culturally Relevant Russian Words
Definition: Matryoshka doll.
You’ve seen those adorable, beautifully painted little wooden creations with multiple dolls nested inside of each other. Now imagine them taking on a more figurative role.
Твой мозг бесконечная матрёшка!
(Your brain is an endless matryoshka!)
Maybe you’re wondering why this word appears under the Russian culture vocab section, and more specifically, why are the grandfathers excluded? If so, it’s likely that you haven’t yet come into contact with a true Russian бабушка. Though often being small in size, they are forces to be reckoned with.
Бабушка сердито посмотрела на него, и он в панике убежал от её взгляда.
(The grandmother angrily stared at him, and he fled in panic from her gaze.)
Yet another rather puzzling inclusion. Why did the other colors not make the cut? Simply put, Russians love the color red. You’ll see it almost everywhere you go in Russia, especially when it comes to the aforementioned матрёшки or traditional Russian clothing. Красный actually used to mean “beautiful” in archaic Russian!
Now imagine your Russian friends have just come to visit you in Moscow, Kansas (hey, it’s possible!) and are walking around the municipality.
Мне сказали что город называется Москва, но красного нет на этой площади!
(They told me that this town is called Moscow, but I don’t see any red in this town square!)
This is a particularly important word to learn for several reasons. First, even a small bowl of it can transport you to a small little shack on the Russian tundra (for better or worse). Second, the word борщ is often horribly mangled in transliteration, so learning to spell and pronounce the authentic version is very rewarding! Third, борщ is quite nutritious, so learning the word takes away any excuse for not making it yourself.
Вкусный борщ греет душу.
(Delicious borscht warms the soul.)
Folks, now you know. A czar isn’t a czar; he’s a tsar. Just learning this word means that you now know the correct pronunciation of a Russian word that made its way into the English language.
Иван Грозный был грозным царём, а Пётр Великий был великим!
(Ivan the Terrible was a terrible czar, but Peter the Great was great!)
Note: The Russian word used for “terrible” in this instance (referring to this particular Ivan) doesn’t really mean terrible. It actually translates to something like “formidable” or even “thunderous.”
Unbeatably Russian Words That Don’t Translate
Definition: A mixture of longing, anguish, listless boredom and yearning, but that only scratches the surface (it’s untranslatable, remember!).
This word is definitely difficult to describe! Imagine yourself strolling down a sidewalk on an overcast, drizzling day, thinking about your lost love, the meaning of life or your unexplainedly deep sense of dissatisfaction with the takeout joint around the corner (OK, maybe not the last one). Whatever it is for you, your spirit is troubled and you are experiencing a particularly tragic sense of melancholic desire for something different or better, even if you don’t know what it is.
Она стала безутешной из-за своей тоски по пельменям прошлых дней.
(She became inconsolable because of her longing for the pelmeni of the old days.)
Note: If you’ve ever tasted some good pelmeni, you know this isn’t as far-fetched as it sounds.
Definition: To be on time for something.
Using this verb itself indicates that you not only were able to complete a given task or go to a specific location, but that you did so within a pre-existing time frame. If you have a love for punctuality, rejoice in the fact that Russian has a verb dedicated to fulfilling this lofty standard.
Я успел выключить будильник.
(I made it on time to turn off my alarm clock.)
Definition: Something between a conscience and a duty to do what is right. Add in some elements of morality, responsibility, ethics and realizing/acting on all of the above, and you’ll be on the right track.
Ah, совесть. This word will take you far beyond basic Russian vocabulary and deep into the mysterious Russian soul. The meaning behind it has put some in a Siberian gulag and others in modern-day prison colonies. Note this long and tragic history as you reflect on the provided contextual usage.
Узник совести остаётся радостным в тюрьме.
(A prisoner of conscience remains joyful in jail.)
Russian Nature Words with -пад
This word and the rest of the ones in this section are great examples of how root words combine. In this case, we start off with вод (from вода — water) and end up with пад (like падать — to fall). See, Russian isn’t as hard as it looks!
Now, imagine that you are visiting a local attraction with friends, and one of them runs up to you, visibly alarmed. Listen to what he says next.
Водопад упал на меня!
(The waterfall fell on me!)
This lovely word makes an appearance in a sweet song from Девчата (Devchata/Gals/The Girls), a delightful Soviet rom-com set in a logging camp. Intrigued?
Снегопад продолжается, как будто это было сто лет назад.
(The snowfall continues as if it were a hundred years ago.)
Definition: Leaf fall (picture either of the preceding two words…but with leaves).
This is yet another one of the Russian words that we don’t have in English, and it’s worthy of language-envy. Just imagine yourself under your favorite oak tree with a great book. As a gentle wind blows, leaves of red, orange and yellow gently glide down toward you. You are now in the midst of a листопад.
Потрясающий осенний листопад заставит человека плакать.
(The stunning autumn ‘leaf fall’ will make a person cry.)
Delightfully Random Russian Words
Who doesn’t love finding a gorgeous shell on the beach? Now you know how to talk about it in Russian.
Не могу поверить, что раковина пуста!
(I can’t believe the shell is empty!)
Now you know how to name one of the things a true бабушка is likely to do for you! It’s a particularly important skill to have if you expect to survive a Russian winter.
За вязание её арестовали.
(She was arrested for knitting.)
Most people enjoy hearing the pleasant accompaniment and melodies that a guitar can produce, so why not learn how to name it in Russian? Especially if you play, being able to casually mention your music-making skills may come in handy more often than you realize.
To help you remember it in Russian, read this nonsensical sentence in Russian aloud.
Гитара ситара и Лара будут здесь завтра.
(The sitar’s guitar and Lara will be here tomorrow.)
Bonus: Now you know how to say the possessive form of “sitar” too!
A word as fun to say as карандаш can get you requesting a pencil when you really wanted a pen. Try saying this fun little rhyme to get it down pat.
Маш, смотри! Карандаш и много каш!
(Mash[a], look! A pencil and lots of porridge!)
Here’s a little exercise for you. It’s safe to assume that you look in one of these several times a day. Next time you do so, say зеркало to yourself. After a few times, you’ll likely find that you think of that word even before the English version, which is one step closer to thinking in Russian. This Russian proverb is a great example of the word in context and teaches an important truth as well!
Глаза – зеркало души.
(The eyes are the mirror of the soul.)
Practical Russian Words for Emergencies
Learning to ask for assistance when necessary is an important life skill, so be sure you know how to do it in Russian.
Помогите! Меня преследует армия кошек.
(Help! An army of cats is chasing me.)
This word is crucial to know in so many different contexts! Rather comically, it bears a strange phonetic similarity to враг (enemy). But don’t treat these dedicated professionals as adversaries!
Врач, исцели себя самого!
(Doctor, cure yourself! / Physician, heal thyself!)
This word is quite similar to its English counterpart and a must-know in any language!
Полиция! Кто-то украл мой гамбургер!
(Police! Someone stole my hamburger!)
This handy-dandy adverb can be used to mean being both hurt or sick. If you’re in a situation where you need to use it (hopefully you won’t!), make sure you’re able to describe what exactly is painful.
Не больно меня слушать!
(It doesn’t hurt/isn’t painful to listen to me!)
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