Ноль, нуль (часть вторая)

by Don  

The word нуль sometimes occurs in fixed phrases like «начать с нуля» “to start from zero,” which catches the idea of beginning a process with zero previous knowledge or experience or resources:

Нелла со своей семьёй убежали из Словении в сорок первом году. В конце концов приплыли в США, где им пришлось снова начать свою жизнь с нуля. Nella and her family fled Slovenia in forty-one. They ended up in the US where they had to start their lives over from nothing.
— В январе начну изучать Пушту.
— Ты уже немножко говоришь на Пушту, правда?
— Нет, начну с нуля.
“In January I'll start studying Pashto.”
“You already speak a bit of Pashto, right?”
“Nope, I'll be starting from scratch.”

Just as in English you can refer to someone as being a complete zero (i.e., being a worthless human being), so also the Russian word can be used in that sense:

Почему ты ходишь с этим нулём? Он никаких денег не зарабатывает, ни на что не надеется, и вообще не умеет мыться. Why are you going out with that loser? He doesn't make any money. He doesn't have any dreams. He doesn't even know how to bathe.

The word is also used to describe a certain haircut «под нуль», that is, “down to zero” or bald. It's the haircut that every draftee receives when joining the Russian army.

Как только пойдёшь в солдаты, тебя остригут под нуль.
Picture of a recruit getting his head shaved
As soon as you become a soldier, they shave you bald.

The haircut has become so popular among tough young men that sometimes they are called нули, which is probably best translated as ‘thugs.’ (You can hear the word used that way in the elusively connected song «Главное» “The important thing” by the singer Земфира.)


Comment from: Vladimir [Visitor]


well, yes, you can’t call all thugs ‘нули’ - only those crazy young army men who are a certain group of thugs

01/07/10 @ 22:38
Comment from: Andrey [Visitor]  

I haven’t heard anyone calling thugs “нули", although I myself shave my head :) So it must be a rare case and I think most Russians will not understand what you are trying to say. I heard that song you mentioned many times but I think it’s about low temperature, because “газовых горелок больше нет", it’s cold and therefore “нули свое забирают". Maybe Zemphira is not a very good choice for the Russian learner, because she’s quite inventive when it comes to language and it’s quite hard to tell if it’s a real phrase or invented one.

01/06/10 @ 01:15
Comment from: Vladimir [Visitor]

> The word is also used to describe a certain haircut «под нуль», that is, “down to zero” or bald. It’s the haircut that every draftee receives when joining the Russian army. <

As a native speaker of Russian, I would comment that you can also say «под ноль» with the same meaning. To be honest, I have never heard «под нуль» when talking about this type of haircut, only «под ноль», although it does not appear to be grammatically incorrect. Still, as regards the ‘thugs’ interpretation, you are absolutely right - it’s “нули” and “нули” only :)

And thanks a lot for your blog, for giving a chance to look at my native language from a non-Russian’s point of view. If I could be of any help, please contact me.

Don responds: Thanks for your comment! I recall reading in «Словарь трудностей» at gramota.ru that one could only say «остричь под нуль» and never «под ноль». Apparently this is one of those points where the living language has changed from that documented in books.

01/05/10 @ 11:00

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