What’s It Like?

I’m still making my way through Irina Reyfman’s How Russia Learned to Write (see this post), and I just came across a translation that amused me. On page 93 she quotes a typically excitable and mendacious letter Gogol sent his mother in May 1829, in the course of which the young scapegrace invents a position he’d been offered at a thousand rubles a year and asks loftily why he should sell his health and precious time for such a pathetic sum (as Reyfman points out, it was actually a good salary for a starting position, and he would later accept much less), adding “и на совершенные пустяки, на что это похоже?” which she translates “And [sell it] in order to do nonsense. How can this be acceptable?”

That made me laugh out loud. I mean, it’s not wrong; “на что это похоже,” though it literally means “what’s it like?” (i.e., what does it resemble?) and can be used that way, is a common expression signifying indignation, and Sophia Lubensky’s invaluable Dictionary of Idioms renders it “whoever heard (of) the like?; whoever heard of such a thing?; what (sort of game) is this? what do you <they etc> think you <they etc> are doing? [in limited contexts] what will (did) it look like?; what sort of situation is this […].” Even those renditions sound too formal for the context (though “whoever heard of such a thing?” would pass well enough), but “How can this be acceptable?” is just ludicrous. (I suppose if he were a young man today he might say “What’s that about?”)

I’d say the paradigmatic example of its use is this, from Vera Panova’s Валя (1959):

― Как можно, ― говорили одни, ― ехать зайцем, на что это похоже!
[“How can you ride without paying,” some of them said, “na chto eto pokhozhe?”]

The thing is that you can’t really render it “whoever heard of such a thing?” because of course everyone has heard of such a thing, it’s common practice, it’s just reprehensible. I guess “shame on you!” is a likely equivalent, but does anyone say that any more? I think there are few vestiges left of the shame culture that used to govern civilized people. For that matter, do Russians (other than old babushkas) still say на что это похоже? Or is it all mat these days?


  1. It sounds quite obsolete, and the results of Google book search imply that the expression is used literally in today’s Russian, to ask what’s looking like what else, rather than to express indignation. It seems to have become obsolete before the time I was in grade school. The moralizers would say, “what would happen if EVERYONE did the same wrong thing as you did”.

  2. Ah, that makes sense. Thanks!

  3. John Cowan says
  4. And just like that I learn that I am now obsolete.

  5. I do not use interrogative form “na chto eto pohozhe?”, but sometimes use indicative “eto ni na chto ne pohozhe” (it doesn’t look like anything) meaning that it is unacceptable. But then, I am from down South and quickly approaching old foggy stage.

  6. My wife thinks that it is an extant teacherism (a part of the vocabulary which survives largely in the teachers’ speech). But perhaps it’s more alive in some regions?

  7. My very Russian parents from Moscow never use this expression. In similar contexts, they say “что это такое?” (what is this?) or “да что же это такое!” (same thing but with more frustration). Or “как это называется?” (what is this called?). But I don’t know how representative this is. I live in Canada and have very little contact with any other Russians, and Russia is awfully big and diverse. Still, “на что это похоже?” strikes me more as an expression that would show up in an old book.

    And agreed – “How is this acceptable?” is hilariously terrible.

  8. Stu Clayton says

    Very similar Germanic locutions:

    Das gibt es doch gar nicht!

    Was soll das denn?

    Ist es die Möglichkeit?

    Hat man so etwas schon gesehen?

  9. My grandmother would ask rhetorically, kuda eto delo goditsya? I might say, exasperatedly: eto voobsche ni na chto ne pokhozhe. There’s a rich set of more or less fixed phrases to express the incongruity of an action or a notion with anything decent or sensible.

  10. (I suppose if he were a young man today he might say “What’s that about?”)

    I think for a 2020 scapegrace, “What’s up with that?!” would capture the right note of faux-indignation.

  11. Lars Mathiesen says

    Har man set/hørt magen? ~ ‘did you ever see/hear the like?’ is obsolescent in Danish, but can/could express anything from positive surprise to indignation. It would fit perfectly in a translation of the Gogol line.

  12. David Marjanović says

    indicative “eto ni na chto ne pohozhe” (it doesn’t look like anything) meaning that it is unacceptable

    Das schaut ja nichts gleich “that doesn’t look the same as anything” = “that’s really badly done”/”that’s not done yet, and it shouldn’t be, because it’s a bad idea”.

    Also southern, as it happens. 🙂

  13. British and Irish English have colloquial rhetorical “What’s [someone] like?” meaning something like “Aren’t they exasperating?”. Found in the lyrics of Neneh Cherry’s “Buffalo Stance” [“what’s he like? what’s he like anyway?”] and Bewitched’s “C’est La Vie” [“what are you like?”] — in both cases spoken, rather than than sung, as an interjection.

  14. “What the hell is this?”

  15. PlasticPaddy says

    For fans of Gaston Lagaffe…


    Abréviation de “Mais enfin…”, c’est l’Exclamation de Gaston… Sans celle-ci, il n’aurait plus rien à dire… Elle exprime, en général, une situation prenant une tournure inattendue, incontrôlable, échappant à la maîtrise de Gaston.

    Source: http://www.bdenvrac.com/doc/gexclamat.html

  16. Sally Smith says

    Or as my kids would say, “WTF?”

  17. “The thing is that you can’t really render it “whoever heard of such a thing?” because of course everyone has heard of such a thing”

    “Why, I’ve never HEARD of such a thing!” is southern-US for “That is stupid, improper, extremely unwise, and likely to end very badly”; in my experience, it’s used mainly by grandmothers, great-aunts, etc., all of whom have of course heard of whatever it is, but are strongly against it.

  18. Good point.

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