Definitely, the most complicated and terrible thing for students of foreign languages is foreign idioms. Those odd and often senseless sequences of words that mean something for native speakers can stun any foreigner that just knows usual meaning of words. However, when you study language, always comes a time when you begin to understand its logic, and later, the logic of people. Since then, even the oddest idiom has a definite meaning for you, even if you hear it for the first time. So why shouldn't try to understand earlier the logic of people whose language we study? Maybe it would be a good way to speak both conversational and literary language fluently with less efforts? Anyway, it's worth trying.
Let's try this method on three Russian idioms that use the same word, “kasha" (rus. “êàøà" - mush, pap etc. ). Why kasha? Just beacuse its a national Russian dish, a boiled wheat, oat etc. We will use Latin alphabet in order to transliterate Russian words. We will also capitalize stressed volves.
"KAh-shi nye svAh-rish"
Have you ever cooked porridge? I bet you have. So you should know that this is a simpliest dish one coud ever invent. Do you think you need help in boiling this dish? Definitely not. But if you'd asked somebody to help you with porridge, you might get into a trouble with him just because this person is hard to deal. For example I always pour two parts of whater to one part of rice. But having somebody to help me, I can discover that this person pours 3 parts of whater. So while we'll have been argued about the exact amount of water, we'll have burnt our stew-pot. ‘Oh, you are the person who can't even cook kasha with somebody!’ you might roar, ‘You are totally incapable to be dealt with!’ And you'll be right, the person who argues about such simple thing as kasha is too difficult to persuade, or to have business with. I hope you have already got the clue: “kashi nye svarish" means “it's impossible to deal (or have business) with somebody", while literally it's “it's impossible to cook kasha with somebody".
Another idiom literally means “to have cooked kasha". But what's it's real meaning? If you looked at the porridge from another angle than just a dish, you might realized that it's real mess. It's something without the shape, without the quantity, it's something you may stain your hands with. Children also dislike kasha. So anyone has a bad experience in arguing with his/her mom that force him to it a bit more kasha. ‘What a kasha have you cooked again!’ you think with a sorrow and with hope to grow up and stop eat this forever. So yes, that's right, “zavarit kashu" means “to do something that leads to troubles", or “to make a real mess". Although, literally it's just a phrase that designate that somebody has cooked a meal. Funny, isn't it?
"KAh-shah v go-lo-vyE"
So you already realize that kasha isn't only a dish, but a real mess. Would you be happy to have it instead of your brains? I suppose you wouldn't. “Kasha v golovye" literally means “to have kasha in your head" (instead of your brain of course). The real meaning is simple to understand. When you are tired, or you just desperately want to sleep, or when you have studied the whole night a 500 pages textbook before your tomorrow's exam, your thoughts are a real mess. So you can't concentrate, you can't think, you can't be logical. You even might think that your brain is looking like kasha now. So if you tell somebody that you have a kasha in your head that will just mean that you can't think because you are tired.
As you can see, a simple word “kasha" with it's imaginary and subconscious meanings can form different idioms that will have different meanings. Although, the bottom line of all those idioms is how you imagine kasha. That's the clue. If you can't understand what you hear form a native Russian speaker, just try to get your own associations with words that the senseless phrase consists of. Definitely, you will find out the meaning quickly. But instead of waiting until somebody will name chickens “dogs" and explain you why he did so, just try to analyze idioms the way this article suggests. It's really funny and really helps.
Al Polonski is an administrator and chief-editor of a free online Russian language tutor, Learn Russian Easily , based on the method of extensive reading. He can be reached through the website http://learnrussian.hut1.ru