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The Russian Tongue: The big freeze

Mороз и солнце; день чудесный! (Cold frost and sunshine; a glorious day!) So starts one of Pushkin’s best-known poems, celebrating, obviously, the wonders of a frozen, sunny Russian winter day.

Mороз и солнце; день чудесный! (Cold frost and sunshine; a glorious day!) So starts one of Pushkin’s best-known poems, celebrating, obviously, the wonders of a frozen, sunny Russian winter day.

Well, it has certainly turned cold and sunny all of a sudden – the wondrous aspect of that is debatable, but here we are at –20 degrees Celsius (–4 Fahrenheit). In conversation, people are likely to express freezing temperatures using this versatile word мороз: Сегодня 20 градусов мороза. (Literally – it’s 20 degrees of cold.) You can also use the phrase минус 20 (градусов).

Interestingly, we can use either the singular or plural form of мороз with no real difference, although морозы might sound a tad more literary. So if we want to talk about dropping temperatures, we can say: Морозы крепчают/Мороз крепчает. Literally this means that the cold is getting stronger, but in English, we tend to only use the simple phrase, “It’s getting colder.”

What else can the freezing cold do? It can settle or set in; RIA Novosti reports that the zoo animals are still doing fine despite the cold weather that has set in: Животные, обитающие в московском зоопарке, без труда переносят установившийся в столице мороз.

It can also “stand”, although usually this construction uses the plural: У нас стоят морозы, далеко за 30. (It’s freezing cold here, well below minus 30.)

Мороз is often translated as “frost” in these expressions, and in general, but when I hear “frost”, I think of заморозки – the light frost of fall or spring. But мороз usually means deep winter cold, so it should be translated as “freezing cold”, “cold weather”, etc.

There are a couple of common adjectives used to intensify this word; there is сильный/крепкий мороз, “strong cold”. This could be translated as “severe cold”.

Then, maybe a little more intense, we have трескучий мороз (one dictionary has this as “biting cold”). Треск is a cracking sound, and the association could theoretically be with trees cracking under the weight of ice. If you want to complain about the freezing temperatures, you can call the weather холод собачий; in this case it’s like “bitterly cold”.

I think it’s “dog” cold just because собака or собачий are present in a lot of negative phrases (like чушь собачья – nonsense).

To describe how you feel in such weather, you can use the colloquial verbs that come from the same root – мёрзнуть or замерзать/замёрзнуть.

People politely checking to see if you’re cold often say: Ты не замёрзла? Надень мой пиджак. (Are you cold? Here, put on my jacket.) Or you can exclaim: Давай в дом – я совсем замёрз! (Let’s go inside, I’m freezing!)

Aside from describing the actual weather, мороз shows up in many related contexts. For one thing, the star of the coming season is, of course, Дед Мороз – Father (Grandfather) Frost.

And we also, although probably not lately, keep мороженое в морозилке (ice cream in the freezer).

You can see that мороженное is one of those remarkable adjectives that has become a noun, but is still declined as an adjective – порция мороженого, etc.

Russian uses some of the same metaphoric expressions as English with the verb “to freeze”, such as “to freeze on the spot”: Мы услышали выстрел и замерли на месте. (We heard a shot and froze on the spot.) Or “to freeze a bank account”: Все активы и счета ЮКОСа и его дочерних компаний были заморожены.

(All assets and bank accounts belonging to Yukos and its subsidiaries were frozen.)

Then there are some interesting words particular to Russian. You might have run across the word отморозок; this term indicates a
person, probably related to the criminal world, probably violent, with few moral brakes.

Here’s a description from a recent short story: Типичный отморозок из молодых, жестокий и бессердечный, с камнем вместо сердца. (He was a typical young thug, cruel and merciless, with a stone in place of a heart.)

Why is мороз at the root of this word? One etymological dictionary suggested that it comes from the negative associations of cold, as we might call a cruel person “cold” – we just don’t have a word derived from that root, like coldie or freezeup.

Or it could be the idea that the person’s мозги/совесть/сердце отморозили (brains/conscience/heart have been frozen).

Some other common derogatory words come from the same “cold” origins: мерзавец (jerk, creep), and мерзкий тип (nasty person).

Run into that type of person, and you might experience a physical reaction of fright or disgust, мороз по коже (chills). As in English, however, you can also get the chills from something that moves you in a positive way: От его стихов мороз по коже! (His poetry gives me the chills all over!)

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Learning Russian but finding the lessons too formal? In her entertaining column The Russian Tongue, Sara Buzadzhi gives practical informal tips on everything from dealing with traffic cops to flirting in the grocery store. Sara’s columns are published with permission of, where they appear every two weeks.

Sara Buzadzhi is an English teacher and translator in Moscow.

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