Just Between Us, the Russian Way

Честноговоря: frankly speaking

In my file
drawer of doctoral dissertations I will never write is one entitled: “Choice
and Frequency of Parasitical Word Use Among Non-Native Speakers of Russian.”
That one is about how we foreigners pick up a word and phrase and stick it in
every conversation, whether it fits or not. One of my friends often says Вот!
(That’s it.) Another non-Russian friend loves the phrase
вобщем (by and large).
Пойдёшьвкиносегодня? (Are
you going to the movies today?)
Вобщемда. (For all intents and purposes — yes.)

hypothesis is that we master a word or phrase and then use it as a kind of
verbal place holder while we sort out the grammar of whatever else we want to

My personal
parasite phrase is
честноговоря (to be honest), which I use
so much that one of my Russian friends started to counter automatically:
Аеслинечестно? (And if you aren’t honest?)

But these
phrases with
говоря (speaking) aren’t just for hitting the pause button. They set up and
draw attention to your next phrase. Think of them as signal clauses.
Честноговоря (frankly) signals: Right now I’m going to be very
candid and say something that perhaps I shouldn’t. Sometimes it’s to say
something bad about a person, place or event: Никогда не был
вэтомгородеи, честно говоря, не тянет (I’ve never
visited that city and, to be honest, it doesn’t appeal to me.) Other times it’s
to admit a personal failing, like to your teenager who is complaining about an
exam: Честно говоря, я сам не знаю ответа на этот вопрос (I have to admit that
I don’t know the answer to that question.)

Next up is вообщеговоря (generally speaking), which signals a good,
old-fashioned sweeping generalization:
Вообщеговоря, любаявойнанедопустима (Generally speaking, any war is
inadmissible.) But sometimes it’s a way of describing an overall mood:
Вообщеговоря, расставатьсянехотелось (Basically I just didn’t feel like
saying good-bye.)

different from
иначеговоря (to put it another way),
which is a verbal signpost that means clarification is coming.
Питере теперь можно получить всё, что хочешь, не выходя из дома. ИначеговоряпоявилсяИнтернетмагазин (Now in Petersburg you can get anything you
want without leaving your home. In other words, online shopping has appeared.)

Попростуговоря (to put it simply) is good
for cutting to the chase and calling a spade a spade:
Попростуговоря, условияжизнидляних
былиневыносимотяжёлыми (To be blunt, their living conditions were unbearably

But междунамиговоря (just
between us) signals that gossip is about to be shared: Между нами говоря,
жидкий и прозрачный, как вода (Just between us, her bouillon was really thin
and clear, like water.)

Or you can
keep it short with
корочеговоря. Have you ever noticed that people
корочеговоря (to make a long story short)
when they are in the middle of an endless tale?
Корочеговоря, непривычнаяквину, яопьянелабыстро, имнесталооченьплохо (To
make a long story short, since I wasn’t used to drinking wine, I got drunk
quickly and felt horrible.)

You can
shorten this to
which sounds slangy and to the point:
Короче, оченьсоветую (In
short, I highly recommend this.) Really.

Michele A. Berdy is a Moscow-based
translator and interpreter, author of “The Russian Word’s Worth,” a collection
of her columns. Follow her on Twitter @MicheleBerdy.