I’m reading Lazhechnikov‘s second novel, Ледяной дом (The ice house [translated as The Palace of Ice], 1835; Russian text), a great improvement on his first, Последний Новик (The Last Novik), whose beginning was so boring I gave up on it; it’s set in the final year of Anna‘s reign, 1739/40, and has already featured a parade of nationalities, plots in high places, a Moldavian gypsy whose daughter is a confidante of the empress’s, and a man turned into an icicle, all in the first few chapters. But a phrase puzzled me: the gypsy’s daughter, getting into a carriage with the empress, is described as having a гомеопатическая ножка ‘homeopathic (little) foot.’ I couldn’t for the life of me figure out what it meant, but when I looked in my New Great Russian-English Dictionary and discovered the second meaning was “fig. minute, very small,” it made perfect sense. The OED tells me the same figurative meaning was once current in English as well: “fig. Very small or minute, like the doses usually given in homœopathy. (Often humorous.).” The citations:
1838 Dickens Oliver Twist III. xli. 102 Mr. Claypole taking cold beef from the dish and porter from the pot, and administering homœopathic doses of both to Charlotte.
1841 J. L. Motley Corr. (1889) I. iv. 70 Prussia is a mild despotism to be sure. ‘Tis the homœopathic tyranny—small doses, constantly administered, and strict diet and regimen.
1876 C. M. Davies Unorthodox London 307 The chapel was homœopathic in its dimensions.
Incidentally, a little later the following line occurs: “Упала какая-то цыганка, – отвечали голоса, – видно, сдавили в тесноте… Да палка не свой брат, сейчас поднимет и умирающего.” ["Some gypsy or other fell down," voices answered, "she must have been crushed in the crowd... But the stick isn't your brother, now it will rouse even a dying man."] I’m familiar with the expression “свой брат” ‘people like us, the likes of us[/me/you/him/her/them],’ and “палка не свой брат” obviously meant something like ‘the stick isn’t your pal, the stick is for beating you with,’ but I was confused by the implications of the sentence in context, though I eventually figured out that during those ellipses a policeman or the equivalent was beating the gypsy and getting her back on her feet. At any rate, the reason I’m mentioning it is that in the course of investigating the phrase I discovered the online Большой русско-английский фразеологический словарь, which turns out to be the Random House Russian-English Dictionary of Idioms, one of the very best language reference books I own (and one of the most expensive—even back in 1999 I’m pretty sure I paid over $50 for it, because it was so necessary): it’s got a very thorough selection of idioms with excellent definitions and illustrative quotations in both Russian and English (using previously published translations). Anyone who studies Russian should bookmark the link.