Money’s always on everyone’s brain, but it seems especially salient in
the current circumstances, as exchange rates skyrocket, markets
collapse, nations go bankrupt, economies shrink and global industry
grinds to a halt. In such dark times, it’s nice to commiserate over a
few drinks with the locals. But, to better express your deep sorrow (or
anger, or maybe pleasure) at the economic disaster, it might pay to
know the lingo a little bit.
If you’re talking about the crisis, you’re talking about dengi -money.
First off, there’s the diminutive, which you might whisper to yourself
as you watch your stock market of choice plunge - moi denushki! Another
common term is babki, which derives from the word baba or old woman
(another variant is bablo), and means something like ‘greenbacks’ does
in the United States.
As in English, specific quantities have their slang too. A grand is a shtuka (literally, a little thing) or a tonna (a ton). A million is a limon (lemon, which refers to the colour of an old Russian banknote); and a billion is an arbuz (from the word for melon - another foodstuff). If, like most of us, you rarely get a chance to refer to such amounts in your day-to-day life, you’ll have to settle for smaller quantities. Chervonets, which derives from the reddish colour of an old Polish coin, denotes a banknote worth 10 of something - it’s also called a desyatka. Poltonnik means fifty of something, either kopecks or hryvnia or rubles, and stol’nik means a hundred. Crisp new banknotes are called khrusty (literally cracklers).
Food tends to be a lexical stand-in for money (which makes sense, since the latter pays for the former, and quantities of grain were among the first things bartered), and Russian makes uses of a regional staple. Kapusta, or cabbage, is the rough equivalent of the English dough or bread. To make money (zarabotat’ dengi) is to rubit’ kapustu (chop or mince the cabbage) or kosit’ kapustu (mow or cut), which, to bring us back to olden times, brings to mind peasants mowing, perhaps with Tolstoy’s Levin out there, swinging a scythe through the hay.
If you find yourself holding up a bank somewhere in the former Soviet UNI0N, tell the teller goni babki - hand over the dough. If, in more general circumstances, someone has misplaced your hard-earned cash, you can demand podtryndim o babyl’kakh—let’s chat about the money. Somewhat more threateningly, you might ask, de bablo nakh? (where the heck is my money?) or flat-out demand bablyntsij davaj (give me the money), which seems like a lead-in to broken limbs and pistol-whipping. (Note the variations on bablo and babki.)
This region has no shortage of moneyed types, and it might be natural to express some awe at the wealth of Akhmetov or Pinchuk. Of a wealthy person you can say, on nakhobotil deneg, which means literally “he’s snuffled up a lot of money” - the root khobot is the word for an elephant’s trunk. (The phrase can’t be used in the present tense.) A longer expression has a peasant aura: u nego deneg kury ne klyuyut, or he has money to burn, he’s rolling in money; literally, it means he has enough money for chickens to peck. A more poetical description of a wealthy man is related to the word for lavender: a rich person is lavandovy, or a chuvak s lavandosom (a dude with a lot of dough). Referring to the money itself, an admirer might say: eto do figa deneg (that’s a heckuva lot of money).
It may happen that you’ve got a spendthrift friend, the sort you want around when the check comes. In Russian that sort of person slivaet bablo - he pours out money. The opposite sort of fellow is ckupoj, or cheap, and in slang terms he’s a skryaga, a word even the pronunciation of which sounds contemptuous. He or she may also be a zhmot or zhmotka, which doesn’t sound so good either.
But hey, maybe they’re not cheap, they’re just broke after gambling on bad mortgage debt in an overheated economy. If you find yourself in a similar state, explain to your local friends u menya net babla or lave zakonchilos’ (I’ve got no cash or I ran out of money; lave is a gypsy word and ends in a hard e). More figurative variants include ya popal (I fell) and ya golyak (I’m naked). If you’re looking for one of those laconic, one-word answers in which the Russian language is so tremendously rich, you can say simply popandos.
Money Gone? Have a Drink
With your bank account wiped out, you might want to spend your last few kopecks on a stiff drink. Helpfully, Russian has no shortage of words and phrases to describe your future state. The one we all know is p’yany, on which there are many colourful variations. To honour the eternal trade of shoemaking, one can say he’s p’yan kak sapozhnik - drunk as a cobbler. One can also be p’yany v stel’ky, or literally drunk as a shoe sole, in other words flat on the ground. There’s p’yany v dym (drunk in smoke, blind drunk), p’yany v khlam (drunk as garbage), and p’yany v dosku (drunk as a plank, dead drunk). The verb most commonly used for get drunk is napit’sya, as in vsem k cherty, ya nap’yus’ (to hell with everyone, I’m getting plastered). Other verbs follow the same model, beginning with na- and ending with –sya: nazhirat’sya (from the root zhir, fat; it can also mean to gorge), nalizat’tsya (which includes the verb lizat’, to lick); nalakat’sya (to lap); and nakhrukat’sya, which borrows from the verb for oinking: khrukat’.
One can also simply p’yanstvovat’ - booze. A session of rousing drinking is a p’yanka; a serious long-term bender is a zapoj (one can also pit’ zapoem - binge drink). A truly elite drinker is a stakanovets, a great little word that draws on Soviet history and is a double-entendre with the word stakan, or glass. In the thirties, under a quota system which required a set output from every worker, Aleksei Stakhanov set himself apart by mining 102 tons of coal in six hours - 16 times his quota. The Stakhanovite movement was born, in which workers were driven to similar industrial feats, in other words to be stakhanovtsy. Thus a stakanovets is someone who excels at the consumption of liquor, a legend of the pastime, and is probably a label you want to avoid whatever your financial woes.