Proverbs and sayings: A riddle for every occasion

If Winston Churchill was right, and Russia is in fact a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma (which I think many foreigners would agree with), one of the surest signs of this is the plethora of Russian proverbs and sayings. Some are simple, some are simply perplexing, and others may leave beginners in the language open-mouthed and speechless in amazement. In fact, they are used so often that for beginners in the language who are not familiar with the popularity of these sayings and proverbs, it may very well seem that they are being spoken to only in riddles.
One of the more popular Russian sayings is "Rabota ne volk, v les ne ubezhit," which translates literally as, "The work is not a wolf; it's not going to run off to the forest." The English equivalent would be, "The work isn't going anywhere - it can wait."

Another popular saying is, "Skazhi, kto tvoi druz'ya i ya skazhu kto ty." The English equivalent would be, "Tell me who your friends are and I will tell you who you are." The meaning is clear enough: who you choose as your friends reflects who you yourself are as a person. There is a never-ending supply of sayings about friendship, like, "Drug dlya vcekh, drug nikomu," meaning "A friend to all is a friend to none."

But while the cited examples are perfectly understandable to most foreigners, there are many which, unfortunately, are not, and they are likely to leave those who are new to the language scratching their heads in confusion. Take, for example, "Baba c vosu - kobyle legche." This saying would translate literally as, "Once the woman gets off the cart, it's easier for the horse." The phrase actually has a very simple meaning and an extremely popular English counterpart - "Good riddance!"-but the sheer style of Russian proverbs and sayings, the fact that they tend to paint a very specific picture or scenario instead of saying something outright, and of course the sheer prevalence of their usage, can leave beginners baffled or under the false impression that they are being spoken to in some sort of mysterious code.

Luckily, there seems to be a saying in Russian for just about any situation imaginable. If a certain person is not happy with their looks, for example, their loved ones may comfort them by saying, "s litsa vodu ne pit'." In English, the same idea would be expressed with the phrase, "Beauty is only skin deep," but the Russian version translates literally as, "Water is not to be drunk from your face."

And yet, while the sheer richness and abundance of Russian proverbs may seem frustrating to some at first, it's also one of the most rewarding aspects of the language - there are thousands of these sayings, and each one of them is guaranteed to not only make you think, but also unravel just a little bit more of the elusive puzzle that Churchill was talking about. More often than not, once you get past the enigmatic wrapping of the puzzle, you will find the same universal truths you'd find in any language - expressed, of course, in an utterly Russian style.

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