In his statement that he won't be handing over Jason Bourne-impersonator Edward Snowden to the Americans, Russian President Vladimir Putin said something that made that record-scratching halt! sound in the brains of most English-speakers who heard it. "In any case, I would not like to deal with such issues because it is like shearing a pig," Putin said. "There's lots of squealing, and little fleece."
Okay, so Putin doesn't want to shear a pig—great? Poor, relieved pig? And: what?
What it means is that it is useless, thankless work: pigs, after all, have no fleece. It is an old, if rather obscure Russian saying that comes from a series that can be best described as "the Devil is a moron" series. The original is: "The devil sheared a pig—lots of squealing, but little fleece." (Also: "The devil struck flint against rock, and got a shower of goblins and mermaids.")
The pig shearing comment, as it was presented to the American public, sounded like something Borat would say, and that is because most things sound ridiculous when translated literally—which is why, yes, I'm about to say it, Borat's speech was so funny to our American ears. I frequently run into this issue myself when, offhand, I caution an American friend about someone's "cockroaches" (psychological issues scurrying around the recesses of a normal-seeming brain), or describe someone as a "dick descended from the mountain" (a stranger or interloper), or describe someone as a "cunt with ears" (a ridiculous, useless human), or warn them that they'll be "biting their elbows later." (If you've ever tried it, you'll know it's pretty much impossible and it is a folksy Russian way of saying "you'll regret it." As in, you'll be so twisted by the coulda, shoulda, you'll be trying, futilely, to bite your elbows.)
They sound ridiculous, right? Well, sure, but only to a foreign ear. What if the journalists translating Putin had quoted him as saying "there's no use crying over spilled milk," or "seeing the big picture," instead of going with the literal translation: "why worry about your hair if you've lost your head?"
When Russians hear something like this, though, they intuitively understand all the textures—social, historical, literary—that are wound into these phrases. "This is Putin working the lowest common denominator," says Leah Gartel, a Moscow linguist. "He knows what the simple people like. He has a good head on him, so when he says things like 'we'll whack 'em [the terrorists] in the outhouse,' he is saying things in a way we understand and like." Sounds a lot like Bush, and even Obama, no? It is the cultural, down-home dog whistle meant to signify to the President's subjects that he is one of the people, just a regular guy with a nuclear briefcase.
Putin loves doing this. He loves citing folksy idioms, and using crude, often scatalogical imagery. Sometimes, he even uses prisonyard slang. The problem in Russia, however, says Maxim Kronhaus, a prominent scholar of the Russian language, is that the folksy idioms are becoming less and less recognizable to the Russian public, especially the younger generations. "It’s leaving the language, the culture of these proverbs is fading," says Kronhaus. "Today’s children don’t know these phrases."
Which is why, perhaps, Russia's government is forcing the country back into a dystopian traditionalism. But that's a story for another time.
UPDATE: Josh Chafetz, an associate professor of law at Cornell, wrote in pointing out the following:
It’s not just a Russian expression – from Sir John Fortescue’s Governance of England, ch. X (written in the late-fifteenth century): “And so his hyghnes shall haue theroff, but as hadd the man that sherid is hogg, muche crye and litil woll.” (Modernized: “And so his highness shall have thereof, no more than had the man who sheared his hog--much cry and little wool.”) It’s a warning to the monarch not to implement policies that will greatly upset the people (much cry) but produce little by way of tangible revenues to the crown (little wool).
Looks like I'll be using "shearing a pig" any time anyone proposes a costly, PR-oriented policy.