In Chekov's The Duel, the phrase "almond-oily" is mentioned three times:"

"My dear," she cried enthusiastically, on seeing Nadyezhda Fyodorovna, assuming an expression which all her acquaintances called "almond-oily." "My dear, how delightful that you have come! We'll bathe together -- that's enchanting!"


She uttered these words with great solemnity and was herself overwhelmed by her solemn tone. Her face began quivering again; it assumed a soft almond-oily expression. She held out both hands to Nadyezhda Fyodorovna, who was overcome with alarm and confusion, and said in an imploring voice:


"We must have a little talk," Nadyezhda Fyodorovna read in a little note; she glanced at Marya Konstantinovna, who gave her an almond-oily smile and nodded.

I am not a student of Russian, but I am just curious whether 'almond-oily' is a strange or rough translation of a more elegant Russian expression meaning the same thing.

  • The expression "all sugar -and-honey "(1,2 examples ) and " gave a sugary smile"(3) might be more exact. – V.V. Jan 18 '17 at 20:39
  • Who is Chekov?.. – Anixx Jan 19 '17 at 9:08

Your first citation is a translation of this part:

-- Дорогая моя! - сказала она восторженно, увидев Надежду Федоровну и придавая своему лицу выражение, которое все ее знакомые называли миндальным.
-- Милая, как приятно, что вы пришли! Мы будем купаться вместе - это очаровательно!

Almond-oily here stands for "миндальный" (almond). "Миндальное выражение лица" nowadays means "sweet but insincere expression on one's face":

Миндальное выражение Книжн. Неодобр. О сладком, неискреннем выражении лица. БМС 1998, 104.

Though, on the other hand, there is a number of examples of usage in Leo Tolstoy's "Anna Karenina" (1878) where this does not mean "sweet and insincere":

Его тихие успокоительные речи и улыбки действовали смягчающе успокоительно, как миндальное масло.

His gentle, soothing words and smiles were as soothing and softening as almond oil. (Constance Garnett, 1911)

― Если ты хочешь знать мое мнение, ― сказал Степан Аркадьич с тою же смягчающею, миндально-нежною улыбкой, с которой он говорил с Анной.

"If you care to know my opinion," said Stepan Arkadyevitch with the same smile of softening, almond-oil tenderness with which he had been talking to Anna. (Constance Garnett, 1911)

In these examples Tolstoy specially emphasizes that smile is "soothing as almond-oil", so maybe at that time there were no "insincere" meaning in this expression.

But again, Checkov's Duel was written in 1891, and Russian Corpus has a citation of that time that uses "миндальный" in negative sense:

И странная вещь: чем ужаснее и печальнее было в то время положение бесправной крепостной массы, тем миндальнее и слащавее представлялось положение народа в литературе. [В. В. Огарков. Алексей Кольцов. Его жизнь и литературная деятельность (1891)]

Rough translation would be "Strange thing: while life of poor people become more and more horrible, the literature of that time described it more and more shugary and almondy".

So, maybe since Tolstoy times the expression shifted to mean "insincere expression", and maybe translator kept in mind the Tolstoy's usage examples when came up with their "almond-oily" interpretation.

This example also has no negative meaning:

И с добрейшей улыбкой, голосом, который maman умела сделать мягче миндального масла, она говорила ему: ― А знаете, что я посоветовала бы вам попробовать. [Л. И. Веселитская (Микулич). Мимочка (1891)]

And with kindest smile, with voice that maman could make softer that almond oil...

So I'm convinced that in these texts 'миндальный' means 'soothing'. As for миндальничать - it has a lot of examples dating back to 1849 and always with obvious negative connotation.

  • 2
    I can see no difference in meaning among the quotations. If there is something in the voice/face/wording/anything itself that makes the perception smooth, then that voice and that face is «миндальные». Now, if I ask myself whether I should believe that face, then I answer: certainly not, as its quality of calming me down is irrelevant to what the person really means. But if I ask no such question (like in that Tolstoy quote), then I don't recall anything about sincerity either. In that case, I just think that sincerity is irrelevant, and the most important thing is whether I am calmed down. – Evgeniy Jan 18 '17 at 20:15
  • In other words you think that Chekov means just "soothing"? – Artemix Jan 18 '17 at 20:48
  • 1
    Rather, "soothing-because-of-the-facial-expression". It's such an expression that, by itself, should soothe (but does not for obvious external reasons – first, it's too unnatural to pursue to make such an expression in the situations given by Chekhov, and it does not pop up by itself). – Evgeniy Jan 18 '17 at 21:28

Well, actually you can just take the original text and see what is the word. It's actually миндальный:

Дорогая моя! - сказала она восторженно, увидев Надежду Федоровну и придавая своему лицу выражение, которое все ее знакомые называли миндальным. - Милая, как приятно, что вы пришли! Мы будем купаться вместе - это очаровательно!

So it looks like a bad translation, the translator wasn't sure what will be the best translation so a word with the same rood've been chosen.

Now about what this word actually means. It's something between being overly sweet and mawkish.

There's also a derivate verb миндальничать.

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