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.


  1. Part off-topic, I’m very glad to see homeopathy enjoying such a popularity in the West. To enable to body to conquer disease itself needs placebos which works better with confident, sincere quacks. Compared with the abuse of antibiotics and prescription of herbological medicine of uncertain value and toxicity, the Euro-American vice to consume pure water and salt seems much healthier.

  2. And compared to being eaten alive by hyenas, it looks even better. I’m not sure what the point of comparing quackery to abuse is.

  3. Ah, I’ve forgotten the crucial phrase, “like in China”. In China, we take antibiotics for placebos, and also TCM medicines that may or may not work better than placebos and often bring proved harms to the body. I much prefer substituting the domestic branch of quackery to the western one.

  4. “The stick isn’t your pal” – compare with the common Russian saying, “Голод не тетка” (Hunger is no aunt) or in full: “Голод не тетка, пирожка не даст” – “Hunger is not your aunt, it won’t give you a piece of cake.”

  5. Ah, I’ve forgotten the crucial phrase, “like in China”.
    With that addition, I completely understand your comment!

  6. Just a minor point: “сейчас” in “сейчас поднимет” is, to my ear, used in an archaic meaning, which would today be expressed as “сейчас же”. So it should be translated as “at once” (or even “anon”) rather than “now”.

  7. I had no idea homeopathy was that old. I’d assumed it was a 20th century sort of silliness.

  8. read, I’m not having a great day. Could I ask you very nicely to stop posting these comments, which make my life worse, and leave me alone?

  9. i am sorry, you are having a bad day, please leave my comments as it is and i’ll stop my spaming

  10. Thanks, I really appreciate it.

  11. A marvelous dialogue of the deaf here: “Can you stop posting?” “I’ll stop spamming if you stop deleting my [non-spamming] posts.” “Thanks.” Of course, embedded in the huge flood of commercial spam, now banished, this wasn’t so visible.

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