The View From Here: Metaphorically speaking

Volodymyr Kish.

I have come across and become a contributor to an interesting page on Facebook called “Ukrainian Folk Expressions Baba And Dido Used To Say”, dedicated to sharing the rich treasury of Ukrainian sayings, adages, maxims, folk wisdom and witticisms that have been passed down through the generations of our ancestors. If you were raised in a Ukrainian speaking household, you no doubt have some of these buried in your memories, colourful expressions that your parents or grandparents used when coping with the trials and tribulations that life would throw at them. Most of you are probably familiar with such sayings as “Шляк би його трафив!” (May lightning strike him – expressing anger), “Фіґу з маком!” (Figs with poppyseeds – meaning zilch or nothing), “Най тебе качка копне!” (May a duck kick you – said when surprised), or “Cтарість не радість!” (Old age is no fun – said with a sigh).

Although the origins of some of these expressions defy explanation, it is obvious that many of these are derived from the events and observations of everyday life in rural Ukraine. There are numerous examples of this:

  • “Кожна жаба своє болото хвалить” (Every frog praises its own mud);
  • “Високий як тополя, а дурний як квасоля” (Tall as a poplar, but dumb like a stringbean);
  • “Свиня болото знайде” (A pig will always find mud).

There are many sayings that reflect the economic and social disparities that were a fact of life in feudal society, and the constant struggle for freedom:

  • “Де один панує, там сотня бідує” (Where one rules, a hundred suffer”);
  • “Краще битися орлом, ніж жити зайцем” (Better to fight like an eagle, than live like a rabbit);
  • “На своїм подвірї і собака пан” (In his own yard, even the dog is lord and master).

There are many colourful terms used to characterize the lazy, the ignorant and otherwise wanting:

  • “Дурний як пеньок” (Dumb as a tree stump);
  • “Якийсь дурний піп його хрестив” (It must have been a crazy priest that christened him);
  • “Він без олії в голові” (He has no oil in his head);
  • “Він з іншого тіста” (He is made from a different sort of dough);
  • “Молится до скляного Бога” (He is praying to the glass God – i.e. drinking);
  • “Сорочки не має, а женитися гадає” (He doesn’t have shirt, but is thinking of marrying).

There is a large number of aphorisms – basic truths reflecting acquired wisdom:

  • “Душа міру знає” (The soul knows its limits);
  • “Шукають щастя тільки нещасливі” (Only the unlucky search for luck);
  • “Гірка робота а солодкий хліб” (The work may be bitter, but the bread is sweet);
  • “На березі плавати не навчишся” (You will not learn how to swim by staying on the shore).

Some of my favourites among all these are the metaphorical expressions that incorporate some colour and wit when describing things. When someone is annoying me, I would say that “Він їсть мою печінку” (He is eating my liver), or “Він грає мені на нерви” (He is playing on my nerves). If things get really out of hand, you could say “Вважай, бо буде амінь” (Careful, or it will be Amen for you – i.e. I will kill you).

If someone escapes being penalized for something, I would say “Вийшов сухий з болота” (Came out dry from the mud). If I find something is useless, I would say “Потрібно як собаці п’ята нога” (As useless as a fifth leg for a dog). When someone is lucky, it is said that “Йому падає з неба” (Things fall upon him from heaven). When I want to say that something will never happen, I would say it will be “Коли рак свистне на горі” (When a crab whistles on the mountain top). When someone has a rich life, it is said that “Він плаває як вареник у маслі” (He is swimming like a perogy/varenyk in butter).

The Ukrainian spoken language is particularly rich with these kinds of creative expressions, and they are a valuable legacy that reflects the history and character of Ukraine’s culture and its people.