Or, the Problem with Dictionaries. Yesterday it occurred to me (in the context of trying to extract a stubborn light fixture from the ceiling) to wonder what the Russian for ‘pliers’ was. I had the feeling I’d looked it up before, and sure enough when I turned to my workhorse, the Oxford Russian Dictionary, I recognized the alternatives I found there: shchiptsy and kleshchi. Now, shchiptsy is defined in the Russian-English section as ‘tongs, pincers, pliers; forceps,’ while kleshchi is ‘pincers, tongs.’ You see the problem: neither unambiguously means ‘pliers,’ and there was no way to decide which was the better alternative, so I hadn’t bothered associating either with the English word. This time I decided to delve deeper. I checked my Harper-Collins Russian Dictionary, and lo and behold, there was an entirely different word, ploskogubtsy. This immediately looked convincing, since it literally means ‘flat little pincers,’ but now I had three candidates. I looked up ploskogubtsy in Ozhegov (my basic Russian-Russian dictionary) and found it defined as ‘kleshchi [pincers] with flat grasping surfaces,’ which was what I wanted. But I was left with questions. Was ploskogubtsy a relatively new word that had achieved popularity since the Oxford was compiled, or was it a relatively technical term used by mechanics but not by ordinary people, who would just say “Hand me the kleshchi“? And how can one know such things? Ideally, there should be better indications of usage in bilingual dictionaries, but I suppose that might push the cost of production up beyond the break-even point. Anyway, I hope one of my Russian-speaking readers will let me know if ploskogubtsy is the right word to be storing in my long-term memory.


  1. Ploslogubtsy can be contrasted to kruglogubtsy those with the rounded surfaces (to bend wires etc.), both being the kinds of kleshchi. The other word which you did not mention is pasatizhi.
    Look also at the following site for the pictures:

  2. Thanks, that’s extremely helpful! (Here‘s the direct link.) But that gives me yet another word, kusachki (defined in Oxford as ‘pliers; wire-cutters’). Maybe this is a case where Russian differentiates more than English, but I wish I had a clearer idea of the differentiations… and I still want to know if there’s a default word that people would use if they didn’t want to bother being specific.

  3. In other words, if a Russian were standing on a stepladder and he wanted somebody down below to hand him this, what would he say? “Dai mne kleshchi”?

  4. I think it depends on a Russian in question. My father-in-law would say “pasatizhi” and he’s a fitter.

  5. That’s ploskogubtsy or passatizhiin my book. Everyone knows and uses these terms, it seems, especially the first one, since its so self-explanatory. I learned it at 7 or 8 from my grandfather, and the word passatizhi at 10 or so at a handicraft lesson at school. No idea of its etymology, but it sounds a bit like technical argot. “Ah, Vanya, Vanya, my v Parizhe // Nuzhny kak v russkoy bane passatizhi.” (Vysotsky)
    Kleschi is what you pull nails out of walls with (carpenter pincer?). Schiptsy is something you might use to break sugar cubes or, if hot, to curl your hair (old-fashioned curling iron?). Obstetric forceps are schiptsy, too. Kusachki is wire-cutters, right.
    You might want to compare Unior’s catalogs in Russian, English and Slovenian to get a full idea ( or

  6. The result from
    ÏÀÑÑÀÒÈ’ÆÈ [ôð. passe ïðîõîä + tige ñòåðæåíü] — ðó÷íîé ñëåñàðíî-ìîíòàæíûé èíñòðóìåíò, îáúåäèíÿþùèé â ñåáå ïëîñêîãóáöû, êóñà÷êè äëÿ ïðîâîëîêè, îòâåðòêó è äð.

  7. There’s just no way a dictionary (any dictionary I ever met, anyway) can hold a tenth of what any native and/or fluent speaker knows about a language. When I’m learning a language I do my damnedest to cultivate some native speakers, who’ll trade their knowledge of X for my knowledge of English. Of course, it means you get phone calls at inopportune times (“so you hang something *on* the wall? That makes no sense. Why don’t you hang it *off* the wall?” “Oh, no, a person hangs off a cliff, but a picture doesn’t hang off the wall.” Pause. “You sure about that?” “Hey, I’m your native speaker, remember? Now my soup’s getting cold” — conscientious repetition, “*on* the wall. *on* the wall” — “okay, good, thanks.”)

  8. When you want someone to hand you a pair of pliers like those on the picture, you say “ïëîñêîãóáöû” (ploskogubtsy) most commonly.

  9. I agree with previous orators that ploskogubtsy is the most common word. I know it since, yeah, probably 7-8 and I am a girl (loved to help my father). I can easily visualize a couple of them that we had, but not quite sure how kleshchi or pasatizhi look like.

  10. Thank you all; this is fantastic information. I think I’m getting a sense of what’s what. (And only my huge three-volume Russ-Eng dictionary has passatizhi ‘combination pliers’; I too wonder what the etymology is.)

  11. I’d always wondered (but never asked) what it was that you don’t need in a Russian banya, in that song. Now I know. Just the other day, in fact, I had to ask for pliers, to take the nails out of a window frame to replace a window, and I said those things you take nails out with. Now I can ask for it for real.

  12. Having an Oxford dictionary, even a very-very big dictionary does not necesserily provide you the right term. Every dictionary (if it is a good one) is meant for a certain target group of users. Thus a Russian fitter or plumber would probably differenciate more tongs, pliers than a professor of English who edits an English dictionary, not because there are no respective terms in the English language, but because he creates a dictionary for a generic user (language student, teacher, reader of “normal” books)who does not differenciate mentally between all those things. That does not mean, that English language of crafts does not differenciate. Tongs (kleshchi or shchiptsy, but kleshchi is bigger and rougher – thus take “shchiptsy” for sugar) is the most general and older term (Russian kleshchi) which is even used figurally “I wouldn’t touch him with a pair of tongs “. While dealing with big tubes (e. g. oil industry, building industry, blacksmith craft, scrap utilization) use “tongs”, which is in this case almose always “kleshchi” looking like big rough “nippers” of an insect (which are then “kleshchi” or “kleshni” of a crab – this is the ethimology)!
    Wire-tongs (to cut wire) are nevertheless “cutting”, therefore “kusachki” from Russian “kusat'” – “cut”. “Pliers” can be bolt-cutting (becoming ploskogubtsy-boltorezy), ploskogybtsy comes from plosko(flat)+guby (lips), thus to be ploskogybtsy, it is necessary to be flat at the ends. Combination pliers (being then passatizhi)combine the feature of being both flat (ploskogubtsy) at the ends and being able to cut (kusachki). Cutting pliers can be “ploskogubtsy” (flat) and “ostrogybtsy” (ostro=sharp, thus “needlenose pliers”). There are also “kruglogubtsy” which are roundnose pliers (“krugly” which is “round”). A coroner uses “forceps” which is surgical “zazhim”(then it holds the skin) or “pintset” (then you can take a bullet with it from a wound). The conclusion from the whole: you will differenciate it, if it is important for you. (Otherwise you can live happily all your life ignoring the difference between tongs and needlenose pliers – May the Lord forgive you!)

  13. An old English friend I knew always, if in a hurry, would ask to be passed “the doings”. That could be anything: pinch bar, pipe wrench, claw hammer or whatever.

  14. Though the names of them escape me at this second, I would not go to a mere print dictionary to solve this question. I would go to a picture dictionary, not unlike the Oxford Picture Dictionary that is available in various bilingual editions including roosky yazeek, and organized by topics. Surely there’s a section entitled tools and I’d look there. Of course, the right native language informant is great to have.

  15. If it helps, in English, I’d call half of those pictured tools “end-nips” (Since they nip/cut flush at the end, rather than parallel or at an angle to the axis of the tool, as a plain nipper or “dyke” would – why “dyke”, I cannot imagine, but there it i.).
    I can’t speak for Russian (something I am alternately sorry about and profoundly grateful for, I think), but in English tool-description tongs are never cutting tools, and all of the tools pictured appear to be cutters of various sorts.
    (What’s worse, of course, is that most pliers you buy also have a cutter blade behind the tong-like portion of the tool… And let’s not even get started on hammers, ball-peen vs. straight-peen vs. planishing vs. general carpentry vs. framing vs. tacking vs. riveting, etc…)

  16. As interesting as the technical terms for various tools may be, my primary interest is in the general terms known to everyone; it’s unlikely I would ever be in a situation where I needed to know how to say “end-nip” (a term new to me), but one often has occasion to want a pair of pliers to turn some recalcitrant nut (gaika) or similar threaded chunk of metal. The picture dictionary is an excellent suggestion, Toby, and I should probably get one to add to my dozen or so Russian dictionaries…

  17. “ploskogubtsy” and “passatizhi” (written thus) are synonyms in my idiolect and both mean “pliers”. “passatizhi” is a somewhat more technical term, probably by the virtue of looking foreign, but “ploskogubtsy” is by no means folksy or slang.
    I’ve never even heard/seen “kruglogubtsy”, my guess would be that it’s a much more technical term, perhaps formed later than “ploskogubtsy” by analogy with it.

  18. OK, that settles it. I’m inserting “ploskogubtsy” and “passatizhi” in my long-term memory.
    Ah… that feels better.

  19. For Chanukah my wife gave me the Millet Arabic-English picture dictionary (not its official or exact title). The translator has a conscientious note near the front in which he explains that those terms not available in Arabic he either (a) transliterates phonetically from the English; or (b) glosses. Of course, many terms in the book are not familiar to me in English, my native tongue. Hours of fun can be had with this dictionary by figuring out the meaning of various bits of obscure English-language glacier terminology, with the help of my imperfect understanding of the Arabic gloss . . .

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