Килограмм, кило

by Don  

Not too surprisingly, the Russian word for kilogram is килограмм. Note the double м. The genitive plural is килограммов, but after numbers you often find a zero-ending form. That is, you will encounter both пять килограммов and пять килограмм in the meaning of “five kilos.” The zero-ending form is more common among people who constantly deal with large weights. Once in a blue moon you will encounter a Russian who thinks that only the form in -ов is correct in that context. There is also an indeclinable short form кило. Thus these are all possible sentences:

Дайте килограмм мяса.
Дайте кило мяса.
Give me a kilo of meat.
Дайте два килограмма морковки.
Дайте два кило морковки.
Give me two kilos of carrots.
Дайте пять килограммов картошки.
Дайте пять килограмм картошки.
Дайте пять кило картошки.
Give me five kilos of potatoes.

This brings to mind a classic joke: What weighs more, a pound of feathers or a pound of gold? An American experiences this joke in two phases.

Phase 1, grade school: Your buddy poses the question, and you look around yourself dumbfounded and answer “a pound of gold” because obviously everyone knows that gold is heavier than feathers. And then your buddy points out that he said “a pound” of each, so obviously they weigh the same, and you are a complete doofus for not understanding something that simple. You begin to re-evaluate your choice of buddies.

Phase 2, high school: In chemistry class you learn that feathers are weighed using Avoirdupois ounces, whereas gold is weighed in Troy ounces, so in fact a pound of gold weighs less than a pound of feathers (detailed explanation). You realize that not only were you wrong back in fourth grade, but you had it exactly backwards, and your buddy was also a doofus.

The Russians have a similar joke, but with a much clearer set of consequences:

Два студента с военной кафедры решили подколоть прапора: Two students from a military school decided to have some fun with the warrant officer.
- Товарищ прапорщик, а что тяжелее: килограмм ваты или килограмм железа? “Comrade Warrant Officer, what's heavier, a kilo of cotton or a kilo of iron?”
- Килограмм железа! “A kilo of iron!”
- А вот и неправильно, одинаково! “Wrong, they're the same!”
- А я вот щас дам тебе по голове сначала килограммом ваты, а потом килограммом железа, а там посмотрим! Here, I'll hit you in the head with a kilo of cotton and then with a kilo of iron, then we'll see [who is right]!

See the difference between Russian and American culture? Americans get lost in the picky details, and the Russians go right for the most relevant result!

Note: вата is actually cotton wool or cotton wadding like the stuff you would use in dressing a wound. When you translate a joke, though, you want to express it in a short punchy way that gets a laugh from the target audience, so it's okay to take some liberties instead of going for a straight word-for-word translation.

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05/10/09 @ 10:29

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