March 01, 2014

You Can Leave Your Hat On

You Can Leave Your Hat On

In the run-up to January's US and Russia-led talks on Syria, Secretary of State John Kerry presented Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov with two gigantic Idaho potatoes. In return, the Russian delegation offered state department spokesperson Jen Psaki a шапка-ушанка (a Russian fur hat with ear-flaps). The exchange set my linguistic gears in motion.

Gone are the лихие девяностые (tumultuous 1990s) when Россия ходила с шапкой по миру (was walking around hat in hand, i.e. begging for money from the IMF and World Bank). Now we use a shapka as a diplomatic gift.

Never mind that Psaki's shapka was розовая (pink), which is not something you see too often on Russian streets.* As we say, “По Сеньке и шапка!” (everyone gets the hat that fits, i.e. what they deserve or are entitled to). The idiom comes from the times of old Rus, when the degree of nobility and wealth of the boyars was signified by the height of their fur hats. And so, when we tell people “не по Сеньке шапка,” it means they are aiming too high or are trying to get something they don't deserve.

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