LH doesn’t usually cover current events, but Julia Ioffe’s TNR piece on the Snowden foofaraw has a very Hattic focus: Putin’s comment “In any case, I would not like to deal with such issues because it is like shearing a pig. There’s lots of squealing, and little fleece.” She writes:

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.”)

What especially impressed me was that “original” link to Dahl’s Пословицы русского народа [Proverbs of the Russian people], which gives the Russian “Черт стриг свинью – визгу много, а шерсти нет.” It’s not common for American general-interest media to link to Russian sources, and I applaud heartily. I also like her discussion of the fact that foreign proverbs sound funny:

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.)

And she has a good discussion of “the textures—social, historical, literary—that are wound into these phrases” (“Putin loves … citing folksy idioms, and using crude, often scatalogical imagery…. The problem in Russia, however, says Maxim Kronhaus, … is that the folksy idioms are becoming less and less recognizable to the Russian public, especially the younger generations”). Read the whole thing! (Hat tip to Ben Zimmer for the link.)


  1. “Each to his own taste”, said the devil when he painted his tail sky-blue.

  2. Adelfons says

    Cool. But are such “folksy idioms” really so hard to understand? “Shearing a pig” is clear enough, even without Putin’s explanation. It’s like “milking a bull.” …Years and years ago I read the strange expression “shoeing geese” and made it my own. I’ve been thinking all this time it was from Dostoyevsky or another Russian, but Google tells me it was probably François Villon (ferrer oyes)… and further informs me that in fact people in various times and places have shod geese, though happily not with iron.

  3. “Truth is a cow that will give [skeptics] no more milk, and so they are gone to milk the bull.” —Sam: Johnson

  4. narrowmargin says

    As soon as I saw Putin’s comment, I immediately thought it was equal to “pulling hen’s teeth”: lots of clucking, no dental reward.

  5. rootlesscosmo says

    Nikita Khrushchov was said in the US press to be a habitual user of folksy sayings. One I remember–probably inaccurately–was to express the idea that something was beyond improbable: “a shrimp will whistle on the mountaintop before” whatever it might have been. I liked that one enough to adopt it.

  6. I don’t think I had heard the pig-shearing saying until Putin used it. All the same, the meaning was completely clear. I could even imagine a small but big-eared piglet wiggling and squealing as an oversized ruddy-faced farmer was trying to get some precious bristle off its tender pinkish skin to sell it to an элитный toothbrush manufacturer. But at least there’s some reward; hens have no teeth at all (other than in some Russian poems).
    I can hardly be called a “simple” person but I would like more old sayings to stay, to be passed down the generations. The problem with Putin is the vulgarity of his thought rather than of his language.
    BTW, the latest example of false friends from the “unedited” section of the Moscow Times: “The never-ending climax of Russian pension reform.” By far the most common meaning of климакс in Russian is menopause (that’s what the Russian writer meant) and I doubt it is ever used in the sense of “orgasm.”

  7. what annoyance, i didnt seems save the text i was copying pasting last few days, well, well, well
    should say whatever to annoy Lh anyhow i guess
    [Leaving this quote from read here to remind people of why read got banned; I might also add that read, after leaving a long, trollish comment obviously intended for another site, left this follow-up: “oops, it’s hard for a troll out there to not mix sites to troll.” I don’t know why people like that get pleasure out of wasting their time in this particular way, but it’s a big and diverse world. -LH]

  8. megazver says

    Found this in a different blog yesterday:
    “It’s not just a Russian expression – from Sir John Fortescue’s Governance of England, ch. X (written in the late-fifteenth century): “And so his hyghnes shall haue theroff, but as hadd the man that sherid is hogg, muche crye and litil woll.” (Modernized: “And so his highness shall have thereof, no more than had the man who sheared his hog–much cry and little wool.”) It’s a warning to the monarch not to implement policies that will greatly upset the people (much cry) but produce little by way of tangible revenues to the crown (little wool).”

  9. English simply says “scarcer than hen’s teeth”, with no mention of pulling them. But birds do in fact retain the capacity to make teeth, as has been demonstrated several times, if the appropriate additional genes are plugged in.

  10. rootlesscosmo says

    Cf. “Fine as frog hair” as an answer to “How are you doing?” which I’ve heard in California since at least 50 years ago.

  11. To echo what megazver said, the OED has entries for great (or much) cry and little wool and hog shearing. The latter was in later (post-Johnson) editions of Johnson’s Dictionary.

  12. Of course shearing a pig will reward you with a bale of fine bristles that make fine paint brushes.

  13. Dmitry Gamazin says

    Unfortunately, Putin didn’t say “to deal with such issuess”. His words were: “to deal with human rights activists…” (связываться с правозащитниками), which is more grievous.

  14. “Viel Geschrei und wenig Wolle”, said the farmer as he sheared his pig.
    I don’t know if it exists in Germany (anymore), but it’s known in Denmark, though always in the German form.
    Holberg used it as the name of the protagonist in Den Stundesløse.

    “Each to his own taste”, said the devil when he painted his tail sky-blue.

    “Neat, but not showy”, said the Devil; he painted his arse green as a finch.

  15. Trond Engen says

    Mye skrik men lite ull is common as dirt in Norwegian, but I’ve never heard the part about shearing pigs. The meaning is changed too. Now it’s used to dismiss a statement as loud or verbose but lacking in substance.

  16. Sili: I’ve heard that in the form “Neat but not gaudy”.

  17. ‘The shrimp on the mountain’ looks to me like ‘when crayfish whistles on top of the mountain’ – ‘когда рак на горе свистнет, i.e. never, hardly likely, when pigs fly.
    The reference to Khrushchev reminded me of a derivative, in the early Soviet period song
    ‘When will the bolsheviks go?’
    When the camel and the crayfish dance krakowiak.’
    ‘Milking a bull’ corresponds to ‘[it’s like] milking a billy goat/buck’ – все равно что козла доить/как от козла молока, i.e. doing something useless.

  18. marie-lucie says

    JC: en français: quand les poules auront des dents ‘when hen have teeth’

  19. The first time I heard the pig-shearing idiom, it was retold as what Khruschev said about budget-cutting in the academia 🙂

  20. mollymooly says

    @: John Cowan: ‘English simply says “scarcer than hen’s teeth”, with no mention of pulling them.’
    English as a whole can say both “scarce as / scarcer than h.t.” and “like pulling h. t.” although I don’t know whether many speakers use both.

  21. marie-lucie says

    mollymooly: I am familiar with “scarcer than hen’s teeth” (‘practically nonexistent’)and “like pulling teeth” (‘requiring much effort to get information from someone’), but not with “like pulling hen’s teeth” which seems to be a blending or confusion of the two. If a true blend, it “should” mean ‘expanding much effort on a truly impossible task’, is that it?

  22. The one I heard was ‘rare as hen’s teeth’.

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