March 01, 2007

Of Pigs and Oranges

This year, we are told, is the Year of the Pig. Given that pigs are not the most honored beasts over here, we Russians have been wondering what exactly this year may have in store for us. After all, we want to make sure 2007 не подложит нам свинью (“does not spell trouble”). 

The idiom подложить свинью (literally, “to lay a pig”) means to cook up big trouble for someone. It may derive from village life, when one fellow lets his pig into his neighbor’s garden. Swine are notorious spoilers, reveling in turning up the soil and uprooting trees and bushes. Thus the proverb, Волк – не пастух, свинья не огородник (“a wolf is not a  shepherd, a pig is not a gardener”). 

Another etymological explanation derives the notion of pig-laying from the troop formation of Alexander Nevsky’s army, which thwarted the 13th-century German invasion. This formation was said to be swinish (построение свиньёй). Yet, interestingly enough, in German “to have a swine” (Er hat schwein) means “to be lucky” and Germans often give one another marzipan pigs on New Year’s as a token of good luck. It gives new meaning to our saying что русскому здорово, то немцу смерть (“what’s good for a Russian is lethal for a German”)! 

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