10 “fake friends” to watch out for in Russian


If you’ve ever learned Russian as a foreign language, you know that its grammar can tangle your brain at first. But as exhausting as it can be to memorize the six different “cases” and understand the verbs of movement, adding to your Russian vocabulary is much easier. Many words are immediately understandable, from taksi (такси) and restore (ресторан) to tendency (тренд) and Kompyuter (компьютер) and dozens of others that are the same in Russian and English. But be careful: not all Russian words that sound familiar mean what you expect from them. Here are ten “fake friends” to watch out for …

1. Brilliant (Бриллиант)

The classic movie Brilliantovaya Ruka is not (as this student thought) a movie about a man with a shining arm. In russian one brilliant is a diamond – the film is actually about a man who inadvertently brought plaster jewelry into the Soviet Union. These different meanings exist because the English meaning of “brilliant” has changed over time. In the past, diamonds were called “brilliant,” but recently the word has come to mean anything beautiful or extraordinary.

In Russian, if something is bright, it can be otlichnyi (отличный) – or if it’s even more special, it may even be genialnyi (гениальный) or velikolepnyi (великолепный).

2. Cabinet (Кабинет)

If you are ever invited to sit inside a cabinet (кабинет) in Russia you will always have plenty of room. This does not mean a wooden cabinet in which you store your papers; in russian, a cabinet is a personal office, like those in which doctors or lawyers work.

On the other hand, the Russian word for English “cabinet” is chkaf (шкаф). You put your cutlery in a kukhonnyi shkaf (кухонный шкаф – kitchen cabinet).

3. Camera (Камера)

If you ever find yourself staring into a Russian camera (камера), you definitely won’t want to take pictures. This Russian word conjures up images of cramped and dark rooms, of a police cell (camera) at the ‘luggage’ lockers at the stations (kamera khraneniya; амера хранения). the most famous in Russia camera is the bizarre Kunstkamera Museum in St. Petersburg – a claustrophobic exhibit of spooky artifacts that is not for the faint of heart.

Russians sometimes use camera to mean camera, but they usually take pictures with a camera (фотоаппарат).

4. Chief (Шеф)

The good news is that in Russia every office has a chief (шеф); the bad news is that these colleagues never cook. In Russian, chef means any type of boss. In Old French, a “chef” was a chef; that’s where the word ‘chef’ comes from. While Russian retains the original French meaning of chef, in English it is now only used to denote a very important type of chef: a chief.

The Russian word for a chef is povar (повар) – but will also understand ‘chief‘(boss) if they are the chef, a chef-povar (шеф-повар).

5. Family (Фамилия)

This false friend is quite logical: in Russian, your family (фамилия) is your last name – your last name.

In Russian, a family is a Semya (семья). The adjective is semeinyi, so a family budget is a semeinyi byudzhet (семейный бюджет).

6. Insult (Инсульт)

If you suffer from insult (инсульт) in Russian is something much more serious. a insult is a stroke. In fact, Russian medicine is full of terms that mean something completely different from what they do in English. Very confusingly, the Russian word for tonsillitis is angina (ангина), while angina is stenocardia (стенокардия). On the plus side, getting herpes is okay: gerps (герпес) in Russian is just a cold sore.

Outside of the clinic, if you want to insult someone, you have to think of a good oskorblenie (оскорбление).

7. Crazy (Лунатик)

We have always believed that people are influenced by the movement of the moon. Russian uses the Latin word for moon, moon (луна), and has the word lunatik (лунатик) which means a sleepwalker – or anyone who wanders at night, as if controlled by the moon.

In English, the word is much meaner. It was once thought that certain phases of the moon aroused people’s madness and, thus, “lunatic” translates to Russian sumasshedshii (сумасшедший).

8. Magazine (Магазин)

A magazine is just one thing you might find in a Russian magazine (магазин). This is one of dozens of cases where Russian uses the French meaning of a word, not the English: magazine is a store or store. The shortened version of the word, ‘magaz‘(магаз) is one of the great pieces of Russian slang …

Even more confusing, the Russian word for a magazine is zhurnal (журнал), which is another false friend if you are from North America. A journal, that is, the little book in which to write your thoughts, is in fact a dnevnik (дневник).

9. Fabric (Фабрика)

Only a few fabriki (фабрики) in Russia have any fabric inside. The word actually means “factory”; this is another case where Russian uses a French word (“fabrique”). Fabrik are found in industrial areas outside most Russian cities, while in the early 2000s the television program Fabrika Zvyozd (Фабрика Звёзд, ‘Star Factory’) was one of the very first talent shows in Russia.

Meanwhile, in Russian, a fabric or textile is a tkan ‘ (ткань).

10. Precise (Аккуратно)

In Russia, to dress akkuratno (аккуратно) doesn’t just mean putting your t-shirt on the right way. This is a specific type of accuracy, the meaning of which is closer to “with care” or “with care”. When the Russians ask you to focus on something – walking down an icy street; write a note by hand… – you will always hear: “Akkuratno! “

On the other hand, Russian for precise is tochno (точно): In a football match, a shot on target is a tochnyi oudar (точный удар).

When all of this is said and done, maybe Russian grammar isn’t the hard part after all?

Jonathan Campion writes on Russia at jonathancampion.com.

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