Like shearing a pig — lots of screams but little wool

As Vladamir Putin confirms that Edward Snowden is indeed in the transit lounge at Moscow airport, the most interesting detail in today’s news is the useful Russian saying in the headline above.

Putin lashed out at US accusations that the Kremlin was harbouring a fugitive. “Any accusations against Russia are nonsense and rubbish,” Putin said.

He also appeared to throw his support behind Snowden, as well as the WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange, currently holed up at Ecuador’s embassy in London.

“Assange and Snowden consider themselves human rights activists and say they are fighting for the spread of information,” he said. “Ask yourself this: should you hand these people over so they will be put in prison?

“In any case, I’d rather not deal with such questions, because anyway it’s like shearing a pig – lots of screams but little wool.”

Julia Ioffe writes: Okay, so Putin doesn’t want to shear a pig — great? Poor, relieved pig? And: what?

What it means is that it is useless, thankless work: pigs, after all, have no fleece. It is an old, if rather obscure Russian saying that comes from a series that can be best described as “the Devil is a moron” series. The original is: “The devil sheared a pig—lots of squealing, but little fleece.” (Also: “The devil struck flint against rock, and got a shower of goblins and mermaids.”)

The pig shearing comment, as it was presented to the American public, sounded like something Borat would say, and that is because most things sound ridiculous when translated literally—which is why, yes, I’m about to say it, Borat’s speech was so funny to our American ears. I frequently run into this issue myself when, offhand, I caution an American friend about someone’s “cockroaches” (psychological issues scurrying around the recesses of a normal-seeming brain), or describe someone as a “dick descended from the mountain” (a stranger or interloper), or describe someone as a “cunt with ears” (a ridiculous, useless human), or warn them that they’ll be “biting their elbows later.” (If you’ve ever tried it, you’ll know it’s pretty much impossible and it is a folksy Russian way of saying “you’ll regret it.” As in, you’ll be so twisted by the coulda, shoulda, you’ll be trying, futilely, to bite your elbows.)

They sound ridiculous, right? Well, sure, but only to a foreign ear. [Continue reading…]

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