by Don  

Heaven knows why, but the other day I took an online Russian test and was dismayed to discover that I didn't know the Russian word for hairpin. You may wonder why I was dismayed. After all, why does a foreign man need to know that word when he is never going to wear one in his hair? But the way I figure it, some day I might be thrown into a Russian prison and have to macgyver my way out of there. Who knows what tools I might have to use in the process? So “hairpin” is a perfectly sensible word for me to know. By the way, it turns out to be шпилька, and the genitive plural is шпилек. Sample sentences:

Мои волосы сегодня просто не хотели порядочно лежать. Пришлось воспользоваться шпильками. My hair just didn't want to behave this morning. I had to use bobby pins.
В прошлом году меня бросили в тюрьму в Крыму. Я открыл замок камеры шпилькой и прятался три дня в гнилом болоте, пока за мной не прилетел вертолёт, который меня доставил в Женеву. Last year I was thrown into a prison in the Crimea. I opened the lock of my cell with a hairpin and hid for three days in a putrid swamp until a helicopter flew in to retrieve me and return me to Geneva.
Photo of hairpins, high-heeled shoes, and a girl band
Types of шпильки

Шпилька actually has a dozen other meanings as well. For instance, it is sometimes used to mean cotter pins, which is not too surprising considering their shape, as well as other cylindrical items that hold metalwork together. It also means stiletto in the sense of a tall thin heel on a high-heeled show. From that it's not surprising that a girl-band took on the name Шпильки “The Stilettoes.” And it can also be used to mean a jibe/dig/snide comment:

— Как я рада тебя видеть, доченька! Хотя твои волосы вчера шли тебе гораздо лучше, чем сегодня.
— Мама, ты всегда хочешь везде шпильки вставить.
“It's so good to see you, my darling daughter! Although your hair yesterday suited you a lot better than today.”
“Mama, why do you always have to say mean things like that?”

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