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When Russians say that you are like a grass snake on a frying pan ("как уж на сковородке"), they often mean that you are grilled by tough incriminating questions and desperately trying to save your face by dodging questions and creating explanations on the fly. The idiom can also mean other things.

I wonder how Russians could come up with such a bizarre idiom. Did Russians use to eat grass snakes in the past? Did they fry them alive? Or is the idiom just a product of too wild imagination? Intrigued, I found quite a few Russian recipes of cooking grass snakes - e.g, this one...

I was unable to find any serious source explaining the etymology of the idiom. I only saw a folk etymology hypothesis that the idiom was born by merging two different idioms, "like a grass snake" ("как уж") and "like on a frying pan" ("как на сковородке"). If that hypothesis is true, I wonder as to exactly what on a frying pan you are figuratively compared to in the second idiom, "like on a frying pan." Or are people are said to be like being fried themselves?

My question: Are there any expert opinions, dictionary entries, or serious evidence regarding the origins of the Russian idiom "like a grass snake on a frying pan"?

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    @Elena, про угря впервые слышу. А вот про ужа на сковородке подтверждаю. Хотя, возможно, это от региона зависит — где-то один вариант, где-то другой. – Arhad-the-dev Nov 5 at 18:10
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    Note that the idiom can also be used in a more direct meaning (usually said to kids): "Что ты вертишься как уж на сковородке, нельзя пять минут посидеть спокойно?" – Alissa Nov 6 at 10:51
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    if every saying were taken literally or expected to be based in history, we'd be living in a world where pigs fly, people walk around with ants in their pants, you could burn holes through people with your eyes, etc. What a ridiculous question! – CocoPop Nov 6 at 14:12
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    @CocoPop not to mention butterflies in stomachs. I always found this image disgusting rather than romantic, so good riddance. – Ivan Milyakov Nov 7 at 2:00
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    @CocoPop : You see, the literal meaning of the English idiom "when pigs fly" is intentionally about something that never happens. After all, the idiom's meaning is "never." In contrast, the literal meaning of the Russian idiom "like a grass snake on a frying pan" is about something pretty realistic. The author of one of the answers even says that his grandma used to cook eels alive on a frying pan. I would never ask whether there were any flying pigs in England, but I felt tempted to ask about cooking grass snakes, especially as I found some Russian recipes of cooking them. – Mitsuko Nov 7 at 13:37
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When someone says "да что ты всё вертишься, у тебя что, шило в жопе" it doesn't actually means that ancient Slavic people used to insert awls into into their asses. It's a figure of speech. We do not have any evidence that this phrase came into existence because grass snakes were part of cuisine.

There's a similar phrase (apart from "угорь" mentioned in comments) "вертеться как глист на сквородке" - I think it's pretty obvious that it's not because someone cooked worms.

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    Even if we used to cook snakes, I strongly doubt we'd just throw them in the frying pan alive :) – Ivan Milyakov Nov 5 at 23:17
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    @IvanMilyakov - Why not? People eat clams and octopuses alive. – Yellow Sky Nov 6 at 17:58
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    @YellowSky don't know, I'd expect the guy to be at least gutted. But I'm no expert at cooking snakes. – Ivan Milyakov Nov 6 at 23:05
  • @YellowSky well, the difference is that both clams and octopuses are boneless. – shabunc Nov 6 at 23:06
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    @Mitsuko I have no idea why you so naively say “everyone has eaten dancing squid”. I thought you understand that culinary traditions vary across the world. I never saw dancing squid offered in any Japanese-themed restaurant I’ve been at in Moscow. But you guess right that crayfish are boiled alive in Russian cuisine. But I expect most Russians to be scared by anything wriggling in their plate. Raw meat or fish or seafood is not traditional in Russian culture, many people don’t eat sushi at all, it’s even considered unusual to prefer any steak doneness other than “well done”. – Neith 2 days ago
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A frying pan is not cooking device here, as you may think. This is more deeper image, this is infernal torture for sinners. "You're moving around like you are on the frying pan!". Then by superstitions reason "you" was replaced with other objects, which are well-known as fast and wriggle. So there are few versions of this saying, with (another) sinner, adder, louse, eel, etc.

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My grandma used to put traps for eels in the pond, and then she fried them in a frying pan alive, having rubbed them with salt. They were squirming there and even squeaking loudly, I saw and heard it myself. You know, eels look like snakes, both eels and grass snakes live in rivers and ponds, I'm sure in this proverb we have contamination of угри (eels) and ужи (grass snakes).

  • Grass snakes can also be eaten in famine years. And in Czar Russia every second -third year was a famine one. – ksbes yesterday

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