I ran across a Russian proverb I couldn’t interpret, «Не наелся — не налижешься» (literally “[if/since] you didn’t eat your fill, you won’t lick your fill”), so I asked Sashura, who can explain everything, and he explained it. The idea is that if you haven’t taken care of the important stuff, there’s no point worrying about the details, and if you have, there’s no need to, as in this quotation from Dombrovsky in which Maxim watches men he had trained: “Всё, что он вложил в этих людей, они показывали, и нечего суетиться в последнюю минуту. Не наелся, не налижешься. Люди были хорошо одеты, обуты, вооружены.” [These men were showing everything he had put into them, and there was nothing to worry about at the last minute. You didn’t eat your fill, you won’t lick your fill. The men were well dressed, shod, armed.] There are any number of variants: “Чего не съешь, тем не налижешься,” “Чем не наелся, тем не налижешься,” “чего не наелся, того не налижешься,” “коль не наелся, так и не налижешься,” “Если не накушаешься, то и не налижешься,” and the more elaborate “Если ложкой не наелся, языком не налижешься” [‘if you didn’t eat your fill with a spoon, you won’t lick your fill with your tongue’].
The interesting thing, and what leads me to post about it, is that some googling revealed that it’s not just Russian but more widely Eastern European: this message board has the following exchange:

Liliana Boladz: Co sie nie najesz, to sie nie nalizesz.
I am not sure, if this is a Polish proverb.
Dodo Kaipdodo: There sure is the Lithuanian “Ko neprivalgei, neprilaižysi”; the nights before exams, when trying not to fall asleep “catching up”, I used to remember that and go to sleep, finally…

Anybody know of equivalents in other countries?


  1. here is an Uzbek version: Еб тўймаган, ялаб тўймас.

  2. I once heard someone say, and in away that made it sound like he was just using a proverb, “You take care of the dimes and dimnes will take care of the dollars.” Southerner.
    Actually that works opposite to the sense of the proverb you cite, come to think of it.
    So many of their expresions have to do with money “We got a dollar waiting on a dime….”

  3. Bill Walderman says

    Sashura, you’re not pulling our leg, are you? I’m suspicious about that first word . . .

  4. Heh. (Note for non-Russophones: the first word looks exactly like the Russian for ‘fuck.’) No, it’s a real thing (the first word is apparently from емоқ ‘to eat’). That page has some interesting Варианты/пояснения: Есть в рот да вглот, так не надо и впрок. Будь малым доволен – больше получишь. Что на воде плывет, всего не переймешь.

  5. you’re not pulling our leg,
    no, I nearly fell off my tabourette when I found it, but there you go, PC – one can’t giggle at other people’s proper phrases. There is, or was, a Mongolian journal on ‘Socialist Agriculture’ titled, in Russian script “Социализм худо аж ахуй”. Take it or leave it.

  6. In Ukrainian: “як не наївся, то вже й не налижешся”.
    And another variant: “перед смертю не надишешся” – “you can’t breath your fill before your death”. (I am not sure if I can say “breath your fill”, if that’s correct impression)
    You often can hear it before exams, when somebody trying to learn something 5-10 min. before exam, you can tell him that they should study earlier, and now studying is pretty useless.

  7. There is, or was, a Mongolian journal on ‘Socialist Agriculture’ titled, in Russian script “Социализм худо аж ахуй”. Take it or leave it.
    Venichka would have loved it!

  8. Don’t sweat the small stuff (and it’s all small stuff)?
    A better-known Russian “small stuff” equivalent may be “Снявши голову, по волосам не плачут” … but we are looking for close matches in other languages here rathr than for loose matches in the same language?

  9. It seems to me that “eat your fill” is an odd expression. The word “fill” in this sense has a very restricted use: You can’t eat a fill or the fill, just your fill. And nobody but you can eat your fill. And when you do eat your fill it wasn’t your fill before you ate it.
    I’d love to read a philosophical account of this usage, if Noetica has time to write one.

  10. but we are looking for close matches in other languages here rather than for loose matches in the same language?
    We’re looking for any interesting material that pops into people’s heads. There will not be an exam.

  11. Greg Lee says

    English: Take care of the pounds, and the pense will take of themselves. No, wait …

  12. Bathrobe says

    Unless I’m mistaken, Mongolian for ‘agriculture’ is хөдөө аж ахуй.

  13. Jim’s dime-based proverb exists in British English as “Look after the pence and the pounds will look after themselves”. (OED’s earliest citation is from Johnson’s “patron” Lord Chesterfield in 1747, a former secretary to the Treasury.) I suppose the Russian proverb is looking back at a process and the English one is looking forward. Seemingly contradictory but maybe not mutually exclusive.

  14. and in the magazine Abstinence and Culture (Трезвость и Культура, Trezvost’ i Kul’tura)
    This is in the Venichka reference LH pointed to. I wonder what other culture would combine the two ideas – the US under Prohibition ?

  15. Finland ?

  16. Bathrobe says

    How about: “Get the big picture first” ?

  17. Trond 延元 says

    Perhaps. And Norway. The old national-liberal core of our nation-building party Venstre combined the two — målmann, fråhaldsmann og venstremann “Landsmål-supporter, abstinent and Liberal”.

  18. Trond 延元 says

    Working link: Venstre

  19. marie-lucie says

    Paul: Abstinence and Culture … . I wonder what other culture would combine the two ideas – the US under Prohibition ?
    The first thing that came to my mind was “abstinence-based sex education”, which is popular in some states of the US.

  20. “abstinence-based sex education”, which is *popular* in some states of the US
    worse, *mandated*. But the word
    “abstinence” … is it yet another example of a shift in meaning across the pond? I distinctly remember being taught, in college English classes, that well-behaved Soviets abroad ought to insist that they are “abstinent”, to refuse any subversive offers of booze. Alas, the Americans would just meet it with a blank stare – or worse.

  21. PS: I never heard of “licking your fill” in the context of Dombrovsky’s proverb, but it’s been pretty common in the context of, let’s say, sobriety: нализаться = to get drunk like a pig, wasted.

  22. marie-lucie says

    well-behaved Soviets abroad ought to insist that they are “abstinent”, to refuse any subversive offers of booze
    Perhaps they should have been taught to say “I am a teetotaller”.

  23. yes, I was taught abstinence for not-drinking too. Only after some awkward questions and a lot of giggles I discovered temperance.

  24. Abstinent means, and has always meant, “not participating in something; not indulging an appetite.” Exactly what kind of appetite is entirely context dependent. But, sure, a very proper old Baptist gentleman might still huff “No, thank you. I abstain from alcohol.”
    Alas, however, its most common usage these days is, indeed, in the phrase “abstinence-only sex eduction,” the world’s most ridiculous oxymoron.
    drunk like a pig
    Pigs don’t drink in English. Lords and skunks do.

  25. The skunks got there by virtue of rhyme, but the lords had to earn it.

  26. marie-lucie says

    Skunks do so only because their name rhymes with drunk.
    “Abstinence” is used in French too. I know it mostly from the phrase le jeûne et l’abstinence ‘fasting and abstinence’, which people (especially monks and other religious) are supposed to engage in (so to speak) during Lent and for punishment or “mortification of the flesh”. Le jeûne refers to abstaining from most foods except a few unappetizing ones, and I had not thought about the exact difference between the two words, but I suppose that l’abstinence referred originally to abstaining from wine (only water allowed).
    I agree about “the world’s most ridiculous oxymoron”.

  27. M-L, supposedly Latin abstemius did specifically mean “abstaining from wine”, so the shift in English meaning must have been relatively recent? French abstème appears to retain the “teetotaller” meaning, as does Polish abstynent alkoholowy. For a supposed Russian equivalent of broad abstinence, воздержание, wiki doesn’t have an sub-entry for sexual abstinence, but does have one for non-drinking.
    I think that modern English usage may have started as euphemistic … as in, any way to talk about sex which doesn’t mention sex.

  28. Trond Engen says

    sex eduction
    I could have needed some of that back then. The abstinence was well taken care of.

  29. marie-lucie says

    French abstème ????
    Is there such an animal? I mean, such a word? Perhaps it is a neologism coined from English abstemious?

  30. French abstème ????
    Is there such an animal? I mean, such a word? Perhaps it is a neologism coined from English abstemious?

    The animal must be a rare or extinct species 🙂 ? Wiktionary claims that it is either archaic Quebecois, or rare

  31. abstème
    According to Le Petit Robert, it is an adjective or noun:
    1. [noun] a term of canon law: Qui, par répugnance naturelle, ne peut communier au vin. I am guessing that this is primarily a Catholic dodge: someone who doesn’t take full communion is declared abstemious, so legally he won’t have to go to hell.
    2. [adj] abstemious (abstinent)
    3. [noun] an abstemious person: Les abstèmes musulmans, hindous

  32. Garrigus Carraig says

    The root of “abstemious” is new to me:

    tēmētum , i, n.
    I. any intoxicating drink, mead, wine, etc. (mostly ante-class. and poet.; syn. merum)

    I really ought to make a point of looking up all etymologies I don’t know.

  33. I really ought to make a point of looking up all etymologies I don’t know.
    Careful, that’s how I started—you might wind up becoming a language blogger!

  34. Abstinence is the term used by Alcoholics Anonymous, and as such well understood by at least sections of the U.S. population. But as an abstinent teetotaler (< T-total abstainer, where the T is for emphasis), I myself simply say “I don’t drink” and am instantly understood, or partly understood at least. Note that temperance is moderation or balance, and as such distinct from abstinence; I abstain from drinking, but try to be temperate in eating.

    Shevek went on reading the papers. He read that he was a towering giant of a man, that he was unshaven and possessed a ‘mane,’ whatever that was, of greying hair, that he was thirty-seven, forty-three, and fifty-six; that he had written a great work of physics called (the spelling depended on the paper) Principals of Simultaneity or Principles of Simiultany, that he was a goodwill ambassador from the Odonian government, that he was a vegetarian, and that, like all Anarresti, he did not drink. At this he broke down and laughed till his ribs hurt. “By damn, they do have imagination! Do they think we live on water vapor, like the rockmoss?”

    “They mean you don’t drink alcoholic liquors,” said Pae, also laughing. “The one thing everybody knows about Odonians, I suppose, is that you don’t drink alcohol. Is it true, by the way?”

    “Some people distill alcohol from fermented holum root, for drinking. They say it gives the unconscious free play, like brainwave training. Most people prefer that, it’s very easy and doesn’t cause a disease. Is that common here?”

    “Drinking is. I don’t know about this disease. What’s it called?”

    “Alcoholism, I think.”

    “Oh, I see… But what do working people do on Anarres for a bit of jollity, to escape the woes of the world together for a night?”

    Shevek looked blank. “Well, we… I don’t know. Perhaps our woes are inescapable?”

         —Ursula K. Le Guin, The Dispossessed

  35. marie-lucie says

    Thanks, Grumbly. I would have looked at my Petit Robert if I had been able to find it. I was so shocked by this ugly word that I didn’t even think of looking it up in the TLFI instead.
    The TLFI indicates that the word arises from Canon Law; it applies to a man who cannot drink wine and therefore cannot become a priest except by special dispensation (ordinary people do not drink wine or even grape juice during communion in the Catholic service, they only take the wafer, so they would not need special permission to abstain from communion wine). Some French writers have used the word in a non-ecclesiastical context, for someone who does not drink (by choice or not), but it has never been a common word in France. Perhaps it is or was better known in Québec, where the Catholic Church was much more influential.

  36. tēmētum , i, n.
    I. any intoxicating drink, mead, wine, etc.

    <= Sanscrit tām (dark/tinted ~ intoxicated ) and therefore cognate with Russian тёмный “dark”?

  37. Trond Engen says

    absteme n. single, identifiable expression of abstinence. Abstemes can be combined freely into a coherent ascetic system.

  38. Bill Walderman says

    “Les mauvaises humeurs
    De l’eau sont buveurs.”
    Banner seen by a 12-year-old in 1958 at wine festival in Morges, Vaud.

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