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"The 'Arm' Word Comes in Handy
By Michele Berdy
Рука: hand or arm
One of the classic "proofs" that Russians are загадочные (mysterious), чудные (odd) or simply не такие, как мы (not like us) is the arm/hand issue. In English, the words are separate and distinct; in Russian, рука is used for both. "Aha!" Westerners say. "Russians are so odd they can't even distinguish their hands from their arms!"
Actually, Russians seem to have a pretty good grasp, as it were, of the distinction. Furthermore, there is rarely any confusion, mostly because context fills in the blanks. It's hard to imagine a context in which дай руку would mean "give me your arm" or in which you might think рукопожатие meant an "armshake" rather than a handshake.
The only anatomical confusion I can think of is analogous to English:
-- Федя сломал руку! -- Где? -- На пляже. -- Нет, я имел в виду, в каком месте сломал? (-- Fedya broke his arm! --Where? -- On the beach. -- No! I meant where on his arm?)
If you need to be more specific -- say, when talking to a doctor -- you can use the word кисть (hand) or запястье (wrist).
Russian has dozens of expressions that involve hands, many of them similar to English. For example, signs at a demonstration can demand "Руки прочь от Байкала!" and "Hands off Lake Baikal!" in happy harmony. And поднимать руку has the same meaning as the English "to raise a hand against": Он на женщину руку поднять не может! (He couldn't raise a hand against a woman.)
But other Russian hand expressions either have slightly different meanings or are expressed a bit differently in English. For example, the notion of "a hand not rising" indicates indecision in Russian: Уже пять лет не ношу эти туфли, а выбросить -- рука не поднимается. (I haven't worn these shoes for five years, but I can't bring myself to toss them out; literally, "my hand doesn't rise to toss them.")
Руки потирать is to "rub your hands together" in satisfaction, delight or happy anticipation. This is the same in English, although we are more likely to add a bit of clarification. Take, for instance, this poetic example: Ты руки потирал от наших неудач. (You rubbed your hands together in delight over our misfortunes.) In English you might even leave
out the gesture: You delighted in our misfortunes.
Руками замахать means to wave your arms around, but it indicates disagreement, as if one were thrashing the air to get rid of a bad smell. Она замахала руками и сказала: "Оставь риторику!" (She waved away his words and said, "Stop blathering!")
Руками и ногами упираться means to "resist with hands and feet," that is, to refuse to do something. The image is like, say, a cat that one is trying to put in a carrier to drive out to the dacha. This spread-eagle embrace might be described in less-polite terms in English (or in Russian, for that matter), but figuratively we express the concept with slightly different body parts. Можешь упираться руками и ногами, но мы тебя всё равно женим. (You can fight it tooth and nail, but we'll marry you off.)
Руки ломать is literally "to break one's hands" -- a more vivid version of the English "to wring one's hands." Both mean "to be terribly upset about something." In English you might express the meaning rather than the gesture. Не плачь, Аннушка, не ломай рук. (Don't cry, Annushka, don't despair.)
Руки чешутся -- literally "my hands are itching" -- conveys an eagerness to do something. In English, only the verb is the same: Так хочется поскорее начать ремонт, аж руки чешутся! (I'm just itching to get started on remodeling.)
Руки нагреть -- literally "to warm one's hands" -- is a homey gesture for the nasty art of getting kickbacks or windfalls off something or someone. Чиновники нагрели руки на дефолте. (Bureaucrats got rich off the default.)
In other words, if you've got an itch for money -- scratch it!
Michele A. Berdy is a Moscow-based translator and interpreter. "