Idiomatic Euphemisms for Death in Russian

Death and dying are among the most taboo subjects in many cultures. That’s why you can find euphemistic expressions for death in many languages, and Russian is no exception. Interestingly, these idiomatic expressions can sound either dignified or, on the contrary, deliberately low and even rude. I’ll give you examples of both and explain why they all have their place in the language.

Let’s start with the lofty idioms. They help people talk about the loss of a loved one when simply saying “she died” would be too traumatic, literally poking a fresh wound.

Уйти в лучший (иной) мир is one of the most common euphemisms. It literally means “to be gone to a better (another) world.”  Vladimir Mayakovsky reacted to the news about Sergey Esenin’s suicide with these lines:

Вы ушли,

                как говорится,

                                           в мир в иной.



                                   в звезды врезываясь.

You have passed, as they say, into worlds afar.


Fly, cutting your way into starry dubiety.

(I couldn’t find the name of the translator, sorry!)

Suicide have a lot of euphemisms in Russian, too. For example, свести счёты с жизнью, literally, to get even with life, to settle the score. This is a more formal way to say someone committed suicide.

Есенин свёл с жизнью счёты в гостинице Англетер.
Yesenin took his life in the Angleterre Hotel.

A very old church expression почить в бозе is still in use, although it doesn’t make much sense to modern Russian speakers. The Church Slavic word почить means “to fall asleep”, and в бозе (or в Бозе) means “in God”. People used to say “Он почил в бозе” or “he fell asleep with God” about someone who died peacefully. Later, when the archaic words became unrecognizable to modern speakers, the phrase acquired some ironic flair, and today you may hear “Мой айфон в бозе почил, мне нужен новый” (my iPhone died, I need a new one).

One of the respectful ways to announce someone’s death is to say уйти из жизни, literally, to pass away from this life. It can be said both about someone who has died naturally and about someone who has taken his life. Most often, however, it is just a formal, respectful phrase widely used in traditional media:

На восьмидесятом году ушёл из жизни мэр города Старожупенска Дергунов Акакий Феофанович.

The mayor of Starozhupensk Dergunov Akakiy Feofanovich died in his eightieth year.

The metaphor of “death as a dream” is quite common in various cultures. The Russian expression уснуть вечным сном refers to this and literally means “to fall into an eternal sleep”.

Солдаты союзных войск уснули вечным сном в чужой стране.

Allied soldiers fell into eternal sleep in the foreign land.

Let’s move on to some more casual expressions.

In informal conversation you can hear people talking about death in a rather disrespectful, almost rude way. I think this is one of the coping mechanisms that language gives us: we tend to be less afraid of something that we can describe in rude and mean words. Come to think of it, English also has a long list of colloquialisms for death – to kick the bucket, to croak, to be six feet under, and so on. This might be a humorous way to deal with the seriousness of death.

Here are some Russian expressions with a similar meaning and attitude:

Сыграть в ящик – literally “to get/play into the box”. While the “box” part of the saying obviously refers to the coffin, it is not quite clear why “сыграть”, to play. One of the hypotheses is that it is because of the music that is usually played at funerals.

Чтобы не сыграть в ящик раньше времени, он стал следить за здоровьем и даже занялся йогой.

In order not to kick the bucket too early, he started to take care of his health and even took up yoga.

Дать дуба is another colorful expression of unknown origines. It literally means “to give an oak”. According to some linguists, it came from the verb “задубеть” meaning to freeze to death. Others believe that it refers to oak coffins. And finally, the bizarre explanation is that dead bodies are as rigid as oak wood. It is impossible to say which one is true, so you can pick whichever looks more plausible to you.

В такой глуши дашь дуба – никто и не заметит!

In the middle of nowhere like this, you kick the bucket, and no one will notice!

Протянуть ноги literally means to stretch out one’s legs. It may be a graphic description of the final convulsion when a dying body stretches out its limbs, or it may come from 19th-century criminal slang and refer to execution by hanging. Either way, today it is a fairly neutral way of saying that someone has died. Not too respectful, but okay.

Пенсии у нас нет, так что мы будем работать, пока не протянем ноги.

We don’t have a pension, so we work until we die.

There are two other colloquial expressions related to limbs, and they’re both weird and kind of quirky.

Склеить ласты literally means to glue flippers together. It is believed to come from criminal slang, where fins, ласты, was the word for hands. Traditionally, the hands of the corpse are crossed on the chest, and since corpses are not flexible anymore, the hands are “glued”.

Как не склеить ласты от такой жизни? 

How do you not croak of living like this?

Отбросить копыта – to throw off one’s hooves. One of the most plausible explanations I’ve read is that when a horse died, its shoes went to another horse, hence копыта (a typical metonymy, when the name of an object is transferred to a nearby object). Since копыта is something only animals can have, saying it about a person is only acceptable in a very intimate circle.

Он боится отбросить копыта из-за каких-то непонятных микробов.

He is afraid he can croak because of those unknown germs.

I hope you will never need to talk about death in Russian, but if you have to, you know what phrases to use. Also, you are now well equipped for reading Twitter and other social media in Russian, as well as Russian classics that is, as you well know, full of deadmen.

As usual, your flashcards are attached to this post, feel free to download them and print out – this way, you’ll learn those idioms faster.

(Photo by Francesco Ungaro)