chinese ceremonies for beginners

The Russian expression без китайских церемоний (literally, without Chinese ceremonies) can be translated as “without formalities”, “simply”, “casually”, or even “bluntly”. Chinese ceremonies in question can be expanded as “tedious and unnecessary conventions; excessive display of politeness; meaningless etiquette”. In his short story Китайская церемония (1924), Mikhail Zoshchenko humorously refers to the habit of shaking hands as a Chinese ceremony, even though Chinese have nothing to do with it.

Chinese, however, see nothing wrong in being excessively polite. The more excuse mes, can I asks and pleases, the better. Instead of rather blunt 你好吗 “How are you?” (literally “You good?”), you are more likely to hear 你吃饭了没, “Have you eaten rice yet?” — because if you did, things cannot be too bad. Interestingly, the polite response to 谢谢 “thank you” is 不客气 , literally “don’t be polite”. If you are at all interested in learning Chinese, you could do worse than start with a few polite expressions.

Han characters Pinyin Meaning Etymology
trad. qǐng Please
trad. 請問 qǐngwèn Excuse me 請 / 请 “please” + 問 / 问 “ask”
simpl. 请问
trad. 抱歉 bàoqiàn (I’m) sorry 抱 “to carry” + 歉 “apology”
trad. 謝謝 xièxie Thank you; thanks
simpl. 谢谢
trad. 不客氣 bù kèqi You’re welcome 不 “not” + 客氣 / 客气 “polite”; literally “don’t be (so) polite”
simpl. 不客气
trad. 您好 nín hǎo Hello (formal, said to a single person) 您 “you” (formal) + 好 “good”
trad. 你好 nǐ hǎo Hello (informal, said to a single person) 你 “you” (informal) + 好 “good”
trad. 你們好 nǐmen hǎo Hello (said to a group of people) 你們 / 你们 “you” (plural) + 好 “good”
simpl. 你们好
trad. 你好嗎? nǐ hǎo ma? How are you? 你 “you” (informal) + 好 “good” + 嗎 / 吗 (question tag); literally “you good?”
simpl. 你好吗?
trad. 你吃飯了沒? nǐ chīfàn le méi? How are you? 你 “you” (informal) + 吃 “to eat” + 飯 / 饭 “cooked rice” + 了 (perfective aspect tag) + 沒 / 沒 “have not”; literally “have you eaten cooked rice?”
simpl. 你吃饭了没?
trad. 早安 zǎo ān Good morning 早 “early” + 安 “peace”
trad. 晚安 wǎn ān Good evening; good night 晚 “late” + 安 “peace”
trad. 再見 zàijiàn Goodbye; see you later 再 “again” + 見 / 见 “to see / to meet”
simpl. 再见

kohmelo, pohmelo

After living in Finland for six months, I still can’t follow the vernacular. It shouldn’t come as a surprise that Finnish grammar is complex — though not that complex. At least conceptually, most of (what I know of) it does make sense. It is the (mostly) alien vocabulary that I have trouble memorising. In this situation, “false friends” are as good as “real friends”, because they all provide mnemonics for… for… forgot the word. Let’s just say, they provide mnemonics, all right? So it was good to discover that knowledge of Russian could be of some help here.

To the Russian ear, words such as kartonki (cardboard, carton) and patonki (baguette) sound amusing and familiar. But these could have arrived to Finnish from the language(s) other than Russian, just like картон and батон were borrowed from French. Similarly, kissa (cat) and киса (kitty, pussy) both appear to be of Germanic origin (cf. Swedish kisse). Some other Finnish words, however, leave no doubt regarding their source: тоска, кабак, водка, спирт, закуска, похмелье, топор, гибель, тюрьма, канава — all this horrid, quintessentially Russian stuff that readers of Tolstoyevsky glamourise. It’s as if the Finns used to be such happy people, they didn’t need these words in their vocabulary… until the Russians came, that is.

Speaking of Russians and/or false friends: although rusakko, russakka and ruskea are of Russian origin, none of these words means “Russian”. The word we are looking for is… wait a minute, I still have difficulty to remember it… venäläinen (from Venäjä, Russia).

Some Finnish words of Russian origin

arbuusi watermelon арбуз watermelon
halatti dressing gown халат dressing gown, surgical gown, lab coat, oriental robe
ikkuna window; sash окно window
kanava canal канава ditch, gutter
kapakka tavern, pub, bar кабак tavern, pub, bar
kasku anecdote сказка (fairy) tale; lies, fabrication
kauhtana cassock, kaftan кафтан kaftan
kiipeli trouble, dire straits гибель death, doom, ruin; huge number
kohmelo, pohmelo hangover похмелье hangover
kutri lock (of hair), curl кудри curls
lusikka spoon ложка spoon
läävä barn, pen, cowshed, pigsty хлев stable, stall, cowshed, pigsty
maatuska matryoshka, Russian doll матушка mother, mum
majakka lighthouse, beacon маяк lighthouse, beacon
muurahainen ant муравей ant
määrä amount, quantity, degree, measure мера measure, degree, extent, limit
papu bean боб bean
piirakka pie, pasty пирог pie
pirtu rectified spirit спирт alcohol, spirit
pokaali cup, goblet бокал glass, goblet
pätsi furnace; hellfire печь furnace, kiln, oven, stove
rotu breed, race род clan, genus, kind, sort; (grammar) gender
rusakko European hare (Lepus europaeus) русак (also заяц-русак) European hare
ruskea brown русый blond, light brown (of hair)
russakka German cockroach прусак (cf. пруссак, “Prussian”) German cockroach
saapas boot сапог boot
sapuska (colloquial) food закуска snack, appetiser
simpukka mollusk; clam; mussel жемчуг pearls
sini blue (n.) синий blue (adj.)
tappara (battle) axe топор axe
torakka cockroach таракан cockroach
sutkaus quip, joke шутка joke
sääli pity, mercy жаль pity
tavara goods, ware, commodity, property товар goods, ware, commodity
tuska pain, distress, agony, suffering тоска melancholy, depression, boredom
tuuma thought, idea; plan, scheme дума thought; duma (Russian legislature)
tyrmä dungeon тюрьма prison, jail
viesti message вести messages
voro thief вор thief
votka vodka водка vodka
värttinä spindle веретено spindle

actually, we don’t have to say “actually”

And yet, we do say it.

As it happens, I did not touch upon transitions (transition words and expressions) in this blog. Until now, that is. Evidently, I did not take transitions seriously enough, although I myself use them a lot. Incidentally, every sentence in this post has them.

At first glance, the information content of most transitions is close to zero. In the best case, they can make the speech appear to run more smoothly. In the worst case, they are used as more literary equivalents of “um”, “er” and other procrastination noises. (I remember a colleague whose discourse chiefly consisted of “you know”, “I mean” and “you know what I mean”.) Consequently, one could cross out all of the transitions without affecting the overall meaning of a text. In fact, I could start right away.

Still, it would be wrong to dismiss transitions as meaningless fillers used only by uncultured speakers. Far from it: transitions are found everywhere, from news to scientific publications to impenetrable legal constructions. Typically, transitions indicate

addition, example, contrast, comparison, concession, result, summary, time (often chronology), and place.

In other words, they help to convey more — or less — than unadulterated truth. Moreover, the most blatant lie will go down rather smoothly when preceded by phrase like “you won’t believe it” because the whole construction creates an impression of honesty — after all, you don’t have to believe it, right? Besides, transitions make human communication less robot-like. In particular, the mathematical passages like proofs of theorems can be made just about readable, thanks to expressions such as “similarly”, “therefore”, “thus” and “it follows that”.

Now, in Russian there is a term for the words and expressions which litter our daily speech: слова-паразиты, “parasite words”. Admittedly, many transitions behave as such parasites: they multiply, take over the conversation and suck all meaning out of it.

In my opinion, the relationship between the transition expressions and “proper” sentences is that of symbiosis (of which parasitism is a special case). More specifically, transitions are obligate endosymbionts, that is, they live inside the “host” sentences but cannot survive on their own. So to speak. In any case, transitions are with us to stay.

Finally, here are some of my favourite quotes featuring my favourite transitions.

“Do you see, Piglet? Look at their tracks! Three, as it were, Woozles, and one, as it was, Wizzle. Another Woozle has joined them!”
And so it seemed to be. There were the tracks; crossing over each other here, getting muddled up with each other there; but, quite plainly every now and then, the tracks of four sets of paws.

A. A. Milne, Winnie-the-Pooh


Cat: All in all, 100% successful trip!
Kryten: But sir, we’ve lost Mr Rimmer.
Cat: All in all, 100% successful trip!


Father Fitzpatrick: Taken from the German advance on Russia. You can see where the hammer hits the shell casing.
Father Ted: Gosh, that’s very interesting.
Father Fitzpatrick: These are helmets, mostly infantry…
Father Ted: Yes, these would be German as well, wouldn’t they?
Father Fitzpatrick: That’s right.
Father Ted: You don’t have anything from the allied side?
Father Fitzpatrick: No, no. That sort of thing wouldn’t interest me at all, I’m afraid.


When people enquire
After me health-wise,
‘Not bad, considering,’ I usually say.

Christopher Matthew, Rude Health


“First, I am explaining to you how my Formula 86 Delayed Action Mouse-Maker is vurrrking. Listen carefully.”
“We are listening!” cried the audience who were now jumping up and down in their chairs with excitement.
“Delayed Action Mouse-Maker is a green liqvid,” explained The Grand High Witch, “and vun droplet in each choc or sveet vill be qvite enough. So here is vot happens:
“Child eats choc vich has in it Delayed Action Mouse-Maker liqvid…
“Child goes home feeling fine…
“Child goes to bed, still feeling fine…
“Child vakes up in the morning still okay…
“Child goes to school still feeling fine…
“Formula, you understand, is delayed action, and is not vurrrking yet.”

Roald Dahl, The Witches


Now and then it would vanish for hours from the scene,
But alas, be discovered inside a tureen.

Edward Gorey, The Doubtful Guest
Transitions Вводные слова Palabras o frases de transición
above all (things); the main thing (самое) главное ante todo; sobre todo
accordingly соответственно en consecuencia
actually; effectively; in fact; really в действительности; на самом деле de hecho; en realidad; realmente
admittedly по общему признанию es verdad que; hay que admitir que
after all в конце концов después de todo
all in all в общем; в целом en general
all the same; even so; still; yet и все-таки aún; aun así; todavía
all things considered учитывая все обстоятельства bien mirado; mirándolo bien
allegedly будто бы; как утверждают según se afirma
amazingly; astonishingly; astoundingly поразительно asombrosamente
anyhow; anyway так или иначе; как ни крути (как ни верти) de todos modos
apparently; by all appearances по-видимому; судя по всему a lo que parece; al parecer
as a minimum; at the very least как минимум como mínimo
as a rule как правило por regla general
as already mentioned; as mentioned before как уже было сказано / указано / упомянуто como ya se ha dicho / indicado / mencionado
as always как всегда como siempre
as expected как и ожидалось; как и следовало ожидать como era de esperar
as far as I am concerned что касается меня en/por lo que a mí respecta/se refiere
as far as I can see насколько я могу судить por lo que yo veo
as far as I know; to the best of my knowledge насколько мне известно que yo sepa
as everybody knowns как всем известно como es de todos conocido
as it happens как это бывает; как это случается da la casualidad de que
as it is (well) known как (хорошо) известно como es (bien) sabido
as it turned out как оказалось resultó
as it were; so to speak так сказать por así decirlo
as (good) luck would have it; fortunately; luckily к счастью afortunadamente; la suerte quiso que; por suerte
as (ill) luck would have it как назло; как нарочно la mala suerte quiso que
as one can see как видно como se puede ver
as strange as it may seem; strangely enough как (это) ни странно por extraño que parezca
as (per) usual как обычно como de costumbre
as we will see как будет показано; как мы увидим como veremos
at first glance на первый взгляд a primera vista
at last; finally в заключение; наконец por fin; por último
at least по крайней мере; по меньшей мере al menos; por lo menos
at the same time в то же время al mismo tiempo
be that as it may как бы то ни было sea lo que sea
believe it or not верь или не верь; верьте или нет lo creas o no
besides кроме того además
between you and me между нами entre tú y yo
beyond doubt; indubitably; doubtlessly; undoubtedly вне всякого сомнения; несомненно indudablemente; sin duda
by the way; incidentally к слову; кстати; между прочим por cierto
certainly безусловно; несомненно ciertamente
chracteristically; typically что характерно característicamente; de modo característico; típicamente
clearly очевидно; ясно claro que
come to think of it если вдуматься ahora que lo pienso
consequently следовательно por consiguiente
considering; under the circumstances в данных обстоятельствах dadas las circunstancias
contrary to expectations вопреки ожиданиям en contra de las expectativas / de lo previsto
conversely; on the contrary наоборот; напротив a la inversa; al contrario
curiously; interestingly что любопытно; что интересно curiosamente; de manera interesante
definitely определенно decididamente; definitivamente
equally в равной степени; точно так же igualmente
especially в особенности; особенно especialmente
essentially по существу; что существенно básicamente; en lo esencial
evidently; obviously видно; очевидно; явно evidentemente; obviamente
far from it отнюдь ni mucho menos; todo lo contrario
firstly; in the first place во-первых en primer lugar; primeramente
for all these reasons; in light of all this в свете всего вышеупомянутого; исходя из вышеупомянутого por todo lo expuesto
for better or worse к худу ли, к добру ли para bien o mal
for example; for instance к примеру; например por ejemplo
for the moment; for the time being на данный момент; пока что de momento; por ahora
frankly (speaking); to be honest откровенно говоря; честно говоря francamente
hence; therefore следовательно; стало быть por eso; por lo tanto
however; nevertheless; nonetheless; notwithstanding впрочем; однако; тем не менее no obstante; sin embargo
I’m afraid боюсь me temo que
I believe (я) полагаю; (я) считаю creo que
I mean я имею в виду quiero decir
I suppose (я) полагаю / предполагаю supongo
I think думаю; мне кажется creo que; pienso que; me parece
if the worst comes to the worst; in the worst case в (самом) худшем случае en el peor de los casos
in a nutshell; to sum it up подводя итог / черту en resumen; en resumidas cuentas
in a (certain) sense в (известном / каком-то / некотором / определенном) смысле en (cierto) sentido
in a way некоторым образом de alguna manera; en cierta manera
in any case в любом случае; во всяком случае en todo caso
in my opinion / view на мой взгляд; по-моему a mi juicio; a mi parecer; en mi opinión
in other respects; otherwise в других отношениях; в остальном por lo demás
in other words иначе говоря en otras palabras; para decirlo con otras palabras
in particular; particularly в частности en concreto; en particular; particularmente
in practice на практике en la práctica
in principle в принципе en principio
in short в двух словах; короче говоря en pocas palabras
in the best case в (самом) лучшем случае en el mejor de los casos
incredibly; unbelievably как ни невероятно increíblemente; por increíble que parezca
indeed в самом деле; действительно de verdad; verdaderamente
inevitably неизбежно inevitablemente
ironically как ни смешно irónicamente
it has to be noted (pointed out) that следует заметить (отметить), что hay que notar (señalar) que
it has to be said that следует сказать, что hay que decir que
it’s worth noting that стоит отметить, что merece la pena destacar que
it turns out (that) оказывается resulta que
let’s face it давайте взглянем правде в глаза; признаемся reconozcámoslo; seamos realistas
(let’s) say скажем digamos
likewise; similarly подобным образом asimismo; del mismo modo
moreover; what’s more более того además
naturally естественно; натурально naturalmente
needless to say (that) само собой разумеется huelga decir que; ni qué decir tiene que
not surprisingly что неудивительно no es sorprendente que
note that заметьте, что tenga en cuenta que
of course конечно; (само собой) разумеется desde luego; por supuesto
on the other hand с другой стороны por otra parte; por otro lado
ostensibly; seemingly как будто бы aparentemente; en apariencia
paradoxically парадоксально paradójicamente
presumably; supposedly предположительно es de suponer; presuntamente; supuestamente
probably вероятно probablemente
regrettably; unfortunately к сожалению desgraciadamente; por desgracia
remarkably что замечательно notablemente
sadly как ни печально lamentablemente
secondly во-вторых en segundo lugar
significantly что знаменательно es significativo que
so; then итак; так entonces
strictly speaking строго говоря en sentido estricto; en términos estrictos; hablando con propiedad
suddenly; unexectedly неожиданно de repente; inesperadamente
surprisingly на удивление; что удивительно lo cual es sorprendente
thank God; thank goodness; thank heaven; thankfully слава Богу; слава тебе, Господи a Dios gracias; gracias a Dios
that is то есть es decir
the point is that дело в том что el caso es que
then again опять-таки pero vamos; por otra parte
thus таким образом así pues
to be fair справедливости ради, стоит сказать, что para ser justo
to be (perfectly) honest если быть (абсолютно / предельно / совершенно) честным para ser (totalmente) sincero
to everyone’s surprise ко всеобщему удивлению para sorpresa de todos
to put it bluntly грубо говоря; прямо скажем hablando en plata; para decirlo sin rodeos
to put it mildly мягко говоря por decir lo menos
to put it simply попросту / проще говоря para decirlo sencillamente
to tell the truth; truth to be told по правде говоря; правду сказать a decir verdad; la verdad es que
truly воистину; поистине verdaderamente
ultimately; when all is said and done в конечном счете a fin de cuentas
understandably понятно; понятное дело es comprensible
we note that отметим, что observamos que
well ну; значит pues
without further ado без дальнейших церемоний; не мудрствуя лукаво sin más ni más
without further delay без дальнейшего промедления sin más demora
would you believe веришь aunque parezca mentira
you know знаешь (ya) sabes
you know what знаешь что sabes qué
you understand вы понимаете; понимаешь tú (ya) me entiendes

classification of human mortality

Умерла Клавдия Ивановна, — сообщил заказчик.
— Ну, царствие небесное, — согласился Безенчук. — Преставилась, значит, старушка… Старушки, они всегда преставляются… Или богу душу отдают, — это смотря какая старушка. Ваша, например, маленькая и в теле, — значит, преставилась… А например, которая покрупнее да похудее — та, считается, богу душу отдает…
— То есть как это считается? У кого это считается?
— У нас и считается. У мастеров. Вот вы, например, мужчина видный, возвышенного роста, хотя и худой. Вы, считается, ежели, не дай бог, помрёте, что в ящик сыграли. А который человек торговый, бывшей купеческой гильдии, тот, значит, приказал долго жить. А если кто чином поменьше, дворник, например, или кто из крестьян, про того говорят — перекинулся или ноги протянул. Но самые могучие когда помирают, железнодорожные кондуктора или из начальства кто, то считается, что дуба дают. Так про них и говорят: «А наш-то, слышали, дуба дал».
Потрясенный этой странной классификацией человеческих смертей, Ипполит Матвеевич спросил:
— Ну, а когда ты помрёшь, как про тебя мастера скажут?
— Я — человек маленький. Скажут: «гигнулся Безенчук». А больше ничего не скажут, — и строго добавил: — Мне дуба дать или сыграть в ящик — невозможно. У меня комплекция мелкая…

“Claudia Ivanovna’s dead,” his client informed him.
“Well, God rest her soul,” said Bezenchuk. “So the old lady’s passed away. Old ladies pass away… or they depart this life. It depends who she is. Yours, for instance, was small and plump, so she passed away. But if it’s one who’s a bit bigger and thinner, then they say she has departed this life…”
“What do you mean ‘they say’? Who says?”
“We say. The undertakers. Now you, for instance. You’re distinguished-lookin’ and tall, though a bit on the thin side. If you should die, God forbid, they’ll say you popped off. But a tradesman, who belonged to the former merchants’ guild, would breathe his last. And if it’s someone of lower status, say a caretaker, or a peasant, we say he has croaked or gone west. But when the high-ups die, say a railway conductor or someone in administration, they say he has kicked the bucket. They say: ‘You know our boss has kicked the bucket, don’t you?’”
Shocked by this curious classification of human mortality, Ippolit Matveyevich asked:
“And what will the undertakers say about you when you die?”
“I’m small fry. They’ll say, ‘Bezenchuk’s gone’, and nothin’ more.”
And then he added grimly:
“It’s not possible for me to pop off or kick the bucket; I’m too small…”

шурин, деверь и свояк

When two people get married, they instantaneously acquire a whole new bunch of relatives, referred to in English as “in-laws”. Without going into details, I have to say that I really dislike this term and its derivatives. French belle-famille sounds so much better!

“In-laws” have no exact equivalent in Russian. Instead, there is a bewildering array of terms, seemingly for every possible relationship the spouses and their family members can have. Now imagine translating a family saga from one language to another.

For instance, деверь, свояк and шурин are all boringly translated to English as “brother-in-law”. But how one should translate ambiguous “brother-in-law” to Russian?

Послушай, Зин, не трогай шурина:
Какой ни есть, а он родня.

Владимир Высоцкий, Диалог у телевизора

I first heard this song by Vladimir Vysotsky when I was about ten. I thought “Шурин” was a possessive adjective derived from the name “Шура” used as a matronym, just like the name “Райкин” (Raikin) can be interpreted as “Райки” (“one of Raika”).

Another song has more relations in it than one could possibly digest:

Чтобы я привёз снохе
С ейным мужем по дохе,
Чтобы брату с бабой — кофе растворимый,
Двум невесткам — по ковру,
Зятю — чёрную икру,
Тестю — что-нибудь армянского разлива.

Владимир Высоцкий, Поездка в город

It is not that most Russians nowadays know exact meanings of all these words. (I never even heard — or read — the word ятровь until I came across this Russian post.) Gradually, they become obsolete, and I believe there’s a good reason for that.

As the families are getting smaller, there is simply no need to classify your relatives into groups some of which may be seriously underpopulated. Besides, the use of these terms can make a discourse rather awkward — or ridiculous. Take the couple from the Vysotsky’s song: Ivan can talk about his шурин but for Zina it is weird as шурин is simply her brother. Weirder still, it is she who brought him into the conversation. I can’t imagine anyone seriously addressing his or her relatives as “mum-in-law” or “bro-in-law”. I think it is better to stick to the names.

деверь husband’s brother
зять male relation to wife’s family: son-in-law; the husband of one’s sister or sister-in-law
золовка husband’s sister
невестка female relation to husband’s family: daughter-in-law; the wife of one’s brother or brother-in-law
сват father of one’s son-in-law or of one’s daughter-in-law
сватья mother of one’s son-in-law or of one’s daughter-in-law
свекровь husband’s mother
свёкор husband’s father
свояк husband of wife’s sister
свояченица wife’s sister
сноха daughter-in-law
тесть wife’s father
тёща wife’s mother
шурин wife’s brother
ятровь, ятровка wife of husband’s brother

fok, giek, kok

If you ever read anything about ships in Russian, you may have guessed that a lot of maritime words you came across are not Russian. In fact, most of them are Dutch. As I don’t know the real reason for that, I explain this aberration by Peter the Great’s shipbuilding stint in Holland.

English Dutch Russian
beam reach halve wind галфвинд
boom giek гик
bowsprit boegspriet бушприт
broad reach ruime wind, bakstagwind бакштаг
cabin kajuit каюта
cable length kabeltouw кабельтов
caboose kombuis камбуз
close reach aan de wind, bij de wind бейдевинд
cook kok кок
downwind / before the wind voor de wind фордевинд
forecastle bak бак
gaff rig gaffel гафель
harbor haven гавань
hold ruim трюм
jib fok фок
mainsail grootzeil грот
mast mast мачта
pennant wimpel вымпел
sheet schoot шкот
shroud want ванты
spanker bezaan бизань
yard ra рей, рея

Of course not all Russian nautical terms are of Dutch origin. There are plenty of English words and phrases too. Famously, “ring the bell”, via folk etymology, became рынду бей (“beat the rynda”), swapping the meanings of the noun and the verb of the English phrase and giving a novel meaning (that of ship’s bell) to the old Russian word рында.

maestro, hack us a march

In languages such as German and Russian, prefixes play much more important role in word formation compared to English. Let’s have a look at the three Russian verbs: бежать (“to run”), делать “to do, to make” and резать “to cut”, and the derived verbs in the table below:

бежать run делать do, make резать cut
в- вбежать run into вделать fit, insert врезать fit (into a cut-out hole)
в(о)з- взбежать run up (the stairs etc.) возделать cultivate, grow взрезать cut up
вы- выбежать run out выделать make thoroughly, perfectly вырезать cut out
до- добежать complete the run доделать complete (the task) дорезать complete cutting
за- забежать run into заделать mend, close (a hole etc.) зарезать slaughter
на- набежать attack наделать give, cause (trouble etc.), make (some amount) нарезать slice
над- надрезать incise
от- отбежать run (not very far) away отделать finish, decorate отрезать cut off
пере- перебежать run across переделать redo, rework перерезать cut through
по- побежать start running поделать do for a while порезать cut up (e.g. food), slash
под- подбежать run up, reach подделать counterfeit подрезать trim, undercut
при- прибежать run to приделать attach прирезать cut throat, slaughter
про- пробежать perform a run проделать perform, conjure прорезать cut (a hole)
раз- разделать cut (carcase) разрезать cut in two or more parts
с- сбежать escape сделать make, do, complete срезать cut off
у- убежать run away уделать break, spoil урезать reduce, slash

Where Russian uses prefixes, English has to employ different mechanisms: sometimes it is a phrasal verb, e.g. “to cut off”; sometimes completely different word, e.g. “slice”; and sometimes, well, it is a prefix, as in “undercut”.

Of course, not every prefix can be combined with any unprefixed verb to form a new verb in Russian. As you can see from the table, there are no such verbs as надбежать and надделать. Similarly, разбежать does not exist, although there is a reflexive verb разбежаться, meaning either “to accelerate (oneself) by running” or “to scatter (oneselves)”.

Sometimes one can correctly guess the meaning of the prefixed verb. For instance, the prefix в- almost invariably means “into”, while до- confers the sense of completeness to the action. In other cases, it is not as simple, as the famous quote from The Master and Margarita shows:

А тут ещё кот выскочил к рампе и вдруг рявкнул на весь театр человеческим голосом:
—Сеанс окончен! Маэстро! Урежьте марш!!
Ополоумевший дирижёр, не отдавая себе отчёта в том, что делает, взмахнул палочкой, и оркестр не заиграл, и даже не грянул, и даже не хватил, а именно, по омерзительному выражению кота, урезал какой-то невероятный, ни на что не похожий по развязности своей марш.

Михаил Булгаков, «Мастер и Маргарита»


And then the cat leapt out to the footlights and barked suddenly in a human voice for the whole theatre to hear: “The seance is over! Maestro! Hack us a march!!!” Scarcely aware of his own actions, the crazed conductor waved his baton, and the orchestra did not start to play, nor even strike up, nor even slam into, but, precisely in tune with the cat’s repugnant expression, hacked out an unbelievable, exceptionally shameless march.

Mikhail Bulgakov, The Master and Margarita (translated by Michael Karpelson)


(I have to confess now that this quote was the main reason to write today’s post.)

The prefix у- often can be translated as “away”, e.g. убежать “to run away”, увезти “to ride away”, унести “to take away” and so on. This is not the case with уделать (to break, to render unusable, spoil, stain, etc.) and урезать (typically meaning “to slash”, as in урезать бюджет, “to cut the budget”, which has very little to do with Bulgakov’s “strike up”). I have no clue as to how their meanings came about.